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THE state of press freedom in India has been accurately captured by the World Press Freedom Index. This year’s index was issued on May 3, which is observed as World Press Freedom Day. The Reporters without Borders (RSF), which has prepared the World Press Freedom Index has placed India in the 161st rank out of 180 countries. The disturbing fact is, this is eleven ranks below India’s position of 150 in 2022. The index report notes that “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy’…”.
The single biggest threat to press freedom is State repression and intimidation. Every year witnesses a progression in the steps being taken by the Modi government to curtail the media and suppress independent media enterprises and journalists.
Last year saw the ban on Media One, a Malayalam news channel, whose license to uplink and downlink was cancelled by the ministry of information and broadcasting, the reason given was national security concerns. The ban order on the channel was quashed finally with the Supreme Court intervening and canceling the order. The other tactic to browbeat the media has been the use of central agencies like the ED and Income Tax to raid media houses that begins a process of harassment. The BBC news channel offices were searched by the Income Tax department after it telecast a documentary on the Gujarat 2002 riots. Prior to that, the IT Act Rules were invoked to block the videos of the documentary being circulated through social media platforms.
Journalists are being increasingly booked under various clauses of the criminal procedure code, including sedition, whenever they publish material which is considered inimical to the central or state governments. Journalists have been killed for doing exposes about criminal or mafia activities like Shashikant Warishe in Ratnagiri. That is why the index defines those in the last 31 in ranking out of 180 as countries where the situation for journalists is “very serious”. India falls in this category.
The worst case of media suppression and censorship is in Jammu & Kashmir ever since it became a union territory under the central government. After repeated attacks on the local newspapers and online media sites in Kashmir, there is now no scope for independent media. Even the few existing news outlets are under heavy regulation and censorship. This year in March, Irfan Mehraj, a journalist, was arrested by the NIA and charged under various sections of the IPC, including a clause under the UAPA. At present, there are four journalists in jail. All of them in detention under either the Public Safety Act or the UAPA.
Having dealt with the mainstream newspaper and television channels, the government had turned its attention to the smaller independent news websites and digital media. Rules were framed under the Information Technology (intermediary guidelines and digital media ethic code) in 2021 which effectively allows the I&B ministry to regulate the news websites and social media, the I&B can order removal of content from the digital media. The government control over news and information flows has been further tightened with a committee under the Press Information Bureau being given the power to fact-check and decide what is fake news regarding any government related matters.
The second major threat to press freedom is the increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few corporates as pointed out by the Press Freedom Index Report. The corporate media, which dominates the print and visual media, have become camp followers of the Modi regime to the extent that they are widely seen as the Godi (lapdog) media. The televisions channels owned by these corporates, in particular, have become strident propagandists for the Modi government and the Hindutva brand of politics. Those few who are independent have been subjected to raids and harassment or taken over by Modi’s crony capitalists like Adani who has acquired NDTV.
The result has been the shrinking space for independent journalism and the absence of investigative journalism which can expose the wrong doings of the powers that be.
This stifling of press freedom is part of the overall attack on democracy and democratic rights by the authoritarian Modi government. A situation has been reached where the government feels confident that it can dictate terms to the mainstream media on what the news should be and how it should be depicted. It is a supreme irony that home minister Amit Shah, whose ministry has done the most damage to press freedom, on World Press Freedom Day greeted journalists for their crucial role in helping democracy thrive in India.
In these dark times for journalism in India, one has to salute the courage of innumerable journalists and media personnel who have stood up to all types of intimidation and pressures to carry on their journalistic work with courage and integrity. The fight for press freedom has to be part of the overall struggle for defending democracy.
(May 9, 2023)
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