The Wire recently published a report with a hard-hitting headline: ‘The Toughest Enemy of Press Freedom Is the One Within.’ The report, by Sidharth Bhatia, centers largely round the laws governing freedom of expression in the largest democracy in the world—India. In his article, Bhatia gives us a fine view into how the government has upped the ante by getting large sections of the media on its side. What Bhatia pens down is thought provoking. He talks about a class that always veers towards the powerful and adjusts its sails the moment the winds change. There are writers and editors who forcefully write for one side and within weeks, post an election, switch over to the other. For those who refuse to cow down to pressure by the ones in power, there are numerous reports of telephonic, social media and physical threats—while some journalists have even lost their lives in an unprecedented wave of physical violence and assasination.
These are times when freedom of expression is facing the threat of extinction. Journalists today are targeted more than ever before. According to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index by Reporter’s Without Border (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF), press freedom is on the decline. The Index ranks the top 5 countries enjoying the maximum press freedom as Norway (1), followed by Sweden (2), Netherlands (3), Finland (4) and Switzerland (5). The bottom five countries, which indicate countries with the lowest levels of press freedom, include North Korea (180), Eritrea (179), Turkmenistan (178), Syria (177), and China (176). India, though being the largest democracy in the world with a history of a vibrant press, stands abysmally low in the Index, positioned at 138 and just one place above Pakistan.
Journalists in India live in constant fear of harassment, intimidation and threat from political and business institutions alike. Describing the state of press freedom in the country, RSF stated in one of its reports, ‘With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.’
As of April 2018, RSF counted 13 journalists killed across the world in line of work, of which three were in India. ‘At least three of the journalists murdered in 2017 were targeted in connection with their work’ in India, the RSF report stated. It further mentioned ‘the newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh, who had been the target of a hate campaign on social networks’. Going by all definitions, the quality of press freedom remains poor. Take the case of Swathi Vadlamudi, who works at the bureau of The Hindu in Hyderabad. Vadlamudi is facing a possible three-year jail sentence. She was accused of hurting religious sentiments under Section 295 (a) of the criminal code that was brought against her on 16 April. Award-winning journalist and editor of Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim, was working at home when two unidentified men on a motorcycle threw a kerosene bomb at her bedroom. She narrowly escaped the attempt made on her life. In another incident, around ten journalists were attacked by party activists while covering the nomination process on 23 April 2018. Several others faced the wrath of West Bengal’s ruling party Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters, and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP, India’s ruling party. Navin Nischal, a reporter with Dainik Bhaskar, and Vijay Singh, his colleague, were on a motorcycle when they were rammed by an SUV driven by Mohammad Harsu, a former village chief, who was accompanied by his son. According to various sources, Nischal and Harsu had an argument earlier in the day about Nischal’s reporting for Dainik Bhaskar.
These are but a fraction of the incidents in 2018. There are many more that constantly highlight the intimidation and threat to life and limb of reporters and journalists in the country.
Vishal Arora, an independent journalist, says, “In India, freedom of the press has to do particularly with the media ownership. The advertising revenue crisis hit media in India at a ‘wrong’ time, that is soon after the current governing party came to power. Corporates rushed to ‘rescue’ media groups by way of their investments—and big businesses and corporates are naturally drawn towards rightwing parties given their pro-rich policies. As a result, publishers do not want their newspapers to be critical of the government. While media at large have been doing some stories criticizing the government, very few (those running without corporate money) are proactively doing investigative reporting. Further, the government has been able to create an atmosphere of fear leading to an unprecedented level of self-censorship. If media get together to fight for freedom of press, no one will be able to withstand their strength. It’s a psychological war that those in power are raging—infusing pessimism among civil society and anyone who thinks differently. Due to this pessimism no group is strong enough to take on the ongoing repression.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Karanjeet Kaur, author at Arré (an Indian news and entertainment content platform based in Mumbai) feels that no government should arbitrate the freedom of the press. “It was such a bad idea when the I&B Ministry passed the ‘fake news’ circular on cancelling the accreditation of journalists. The government had to climb down, because the potential for misuse of such an order is immense. So obviously the only answer is self-regulation, even if it is ineffective right now. We have a set of press guidelines, but they’re just that—guidelines. They are not binding. I really feel that what we need is solidarity in the media. We have to stand up for each other’s right to speak,” she says.
Vernacular and regional media face greater harm
Expressing her disgust over the killings of journalists in line of duty, Kaur says that we only hear about the murders or suspicious deaths of people known to English media while there are several journalists working in regional media, doing far more important work that has the power to impact the lives of people, who are routinely killed for the work they do. “We don’t get to hear about them. How many of us have heard the names of Jagendra Singh or Sudip Datta Bhowmik. Like I said earlier, solidarity is the need of the hour. There needs to be a sense of responsibility among India’s journalists, especially young people who are just joining the workforce and need guidance from their seniors. We need to realize we are not working in silos—that if one media organization takes a blow and is weakened, it impacts the environment we work in. It weakens all of us. I do think that the rollback of the fake news order was because of intense media scrutiny and outrage. If the outrage hadn’t happened, we’d probably be saddled by it.”
Vishal Arora, an independent journalist
According to Yusuf Kirmani, assistant news editor, Nav Bharat Times (a Times Group Hindi daily), “Press freedom is under tremendous threat in India. Some media houses are completely under the control of the government in power. Those who are not in favor of the ruling party, they are implicated in false cases. To give just one example, look at the number of FIRs lodged against journalists in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. I feel the government has an overbearing control over television media. Survival is biggest problem, especially in this field. There are many restrictions that journalists face while filing a story.”
Amongst many sentiments that range from disgust to despair on the current situation of press freedom in India, Jai Prakash Pandey, managing editor of FacenFacts (a unique news and views website), continues to have faith in the Indian democracy. “It’s a power of our democracy and people. No one will be able to crush our voice; and after every attack we will emerge stronger than ever before,” he sums up.
With the 2019 elections on the political horizon, we can only sit and watch if the next government in power ensures safety of journalists, prosecution of journalists’ murders, increased transparency and a truly ‘free press.’
(This article has inputs from RSF and the Wire)