Media under Severe Attack
THE World Press Freedom Day, as proclaimed by the United Nations, was observed on May 3. Coinciding with this, the World Press Freedom Index was published by the Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres). India’s ranking in the index fell from 142 in 2021 to 150 this year, out of 180 countries. In 2016, India had been ranked 133. The steady deterioration in media freedom under the Modi government is recorded by this index.
According to the Reporters without Borders, press freedom in India is in crisis because of the “violence against journalists, politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership”.
Freedom of the press and the functioning of an independent media is under severe attack under the Modi regime. Intimidation of the media by the State has become a marked feature. False cases are filed against journalists and editors. It has become common for cases to be filed in BJP ruled states against journalists and media based in Delhi and their being summoned to appear in courts in the state concerned. Sedition cases are filed against reporters who file reports which are not to the liking of the powers that be. More seriously, a draconian law like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act is used against journalists as in the case of Fahad Shah in Srinagar and Siddique Kappan in Uttar Pradesh – both of whom are still in jail under preventive detention.
Physical attacks on media personnel by communal extremist gangs have taken place, especially in BJP ruled states.
The government’s efforts to browbeat the media has taken the form of targeting recalcitrant media houses with economic offences. The Income Tax department, Enforcement Directorate and other agencies are brought into play to harass and prosecute the management of such media houses.
The efforts to extend the government’s control and censorship extends to all types of media. Given the proliferation of digital news platforms, new rules under the Information Technology Act were introduced in 2021 which allows the ministry of information & broadcasting to dictate content to digital news media platforms and giving the government the right to delete digital news content considered objectionable. Over and above all these are the blatant steps to muzzle the media by imposing bans on news channels either for a limited period of time or on a permanent basis.
The independence and integrity of the media has also been compromised by the nature of the ownership of the media. The bulk of the media is today owned by big corporates or business interests. They have, especially the electronic media, with a few exceptions, been coopted by the Modi government to act as the cheerleaders for the regime. Worse, some of them have begun to aggressively peddle the Hindutva communal propaganda. This major shift in the mainstream media reflects the corporate-Hindutva nexus which has been forged. This is having a deleterious impact on the mass media particularly the Hindi media.
What is being witnessed is the travesty of the role the media should play in a democracy. Apart from being sycophants for the regime, a substantial section of the media have become the purveyors of incendiary communal propaganda. The manner in which some of the reporters of the Hindi news channels egged on the bulldozer demolition in Jahangirpuri is just one instance.
Further, those journalists and media who seek to conduct fair and objective reporting and maintain editorial independence, face heavy odds with the might of the State ranged against them.
The only avenue of judicial intervention to protect the rights of the media has also been limited. While in some cases journalists who have faced arrest or legal proceedings on sedition charges have been provided relief by the courts, the higher judiciary as a whole has not intervened to stop the blatant misuse of laws to prosecute journalists such as the use of UAPA or to curb the interference of government in media content.
The attack on the media is part of the larger attack on democracy and democratic rights by the authoritarian regime. The defence of media freedom and the rights of journalists must become part of the struggle to defend democracy and constitutional rights. Every attack on press freedom must be opposed and resisted by all the democratic forces.
(May 5, 2022)