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India’s declining Press Freedom: Should we be worried?

The annual World Press Freedom Index 2020 reveals that India slipped two places to 142nd rank out of 180 countries. The analysis has been conducted by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) a Paris based NGO which works to safeguard freedom of expression and information with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF). Its recent analysis puts India in vicinity with countries like Cambodia and Pakistan with deteriorating press freedom.

The report blatantly puts the blame on the current regime for deteriorating press freedom in the country. It criticized that government is trying to promote their Hindu Nationalist agenda silencing all those who criticize them. Coordinated hate campaigns against journalists on social media and invoking section 124A of the Penal Code is used by the state as a weapon to suppress the voice of dissent. The situation in Kashmir is said to have put a lot of effect on the index with the longest electronic curfew put in place and suppressing dissent with stringent UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and NSA (National Security Act) acts used against journalists. The report says, “Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu Nationalist Government’s line has increased.” But this downward trend of freedom of press is visible since last few years.

Freedom of Press in India has declined consistently witnessing a constant decline since last four years. According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 11 journalists have been killed since 2014 and many others like Ravish Kumar, Barkha Dutt and Rana Ayyub receiving death threats. In 2018, Navin Nischal of Dainik Bhaskar, Sandeep Sharma of News World, and Shujaat Bukhari of Rising Kashmir faced gruesome atrocities. There only mistakes were that they reported on issues like child marriages, illegal mining and Kashmir issue questioning the central government. According to CPJ, India ranked, 13th in their ‘Global Impunity Index’ with 17 unsolved killings of journalists in 2019 itself.

Satyendra Gangwar, Suman Debnath, Patricia Mukhim are names of the few journalists who faced atrocities when they wanted to do free and fair work which they were doing before. When not hit with violence journalists and media houses are slapped with defamation suits like US$ 1.35 Billion claim by Reliance Group against NDTV for their reporting that projected lack of transparency in Rafale deal between Reliance and their French counter-part. Two Kashmiri journalists Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zehra were detained under stringent UAPA recently. Jammu-Kashmir has faced the longest internet shutdown in the world since the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in August 2019.

Mainstream media houses left no stone unturned to give a communal color to the incident of Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi defaming Muslim community with social-media hashtags like #CoronaJihad, #BioJihad. They were again up on their toes when the mob lynching of Sadhus took place in Palghar, Maharashtra with no involvement of Muslims in lynching. On April 14, when lockdown was extended a huge crowd of migrant workers gathered at Bandra Railway Station, several media houses were fixated on why the crowd gathered near a mosque. Media houses are boosted up for spreading ‘Islamophobia’ whenever such incidents take place while on the other hand they are silent on the arrest of Tariq Ahmed Mir by NIA in connection with DSP Davinder Singh. Tariq Ahmed Mir is a former sarpanch of Shopian in South Kashmir having affiliations with ruling BJP.

In an investigation by a news website Cobrapost, it inferred that several news agencies would accept bribes for news coverage favoring the ruling regime. Fake news have become a handy weapon for many social media trolls and news channels which later on are also warned by the police to stop spreading fake news. On 31st March, the government asked the Supreme Court to ‘direct’ the media to publish news related to pandemic only after ascertaining the facts from government approved mechanism. This means that media would have to first take approval of the government before publishing any report. Is it not tantamount to putting censorship on the working of media? The next day in a striking display of restricting free and fair journalism the Ministry of Health representatives completed their press conference in just 15 minutes saying they would only take questions from Asian News International and the state TV broadcaster Doordarshan. Why only these two channels were given preference over others?

The fourth pillar of democracy is under constant pressure. It is working under the influence of the state. The voice of dissent is often dealt with criticism and slapping stringent seditious laws against journalists who criticize the government. Now the people who criticize the present regime have been fragmented and often tagged with words like ‘urban naxals’, ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘anti-nationals’. The voice of dissent is often demonized by using such terminology. Mainstream media is often seen broadcasting news favoring the ruling regime as most of the channels are privately owned having political backing. A kind of environment has been created by the media such that criticizing or posing questions to the government is often seen as a sin.

To deal with it the people needs to discourage the conduct of the media houses in the way they project news. Neutrality is at the core of journalism which the people should seek and expect from the media. Dissent and critical analysis of the government should be encouraged to keep a check on their conduct. Harassment of journalists and intellectuals should be dealt strictly by the judiciary and executive since they are a link between the people and administration. Freedom of press symbolize the freedom of expression in India which if not dealt would deteriorate our democratic setup.

Aman Sharma is a student pursuing Public Administration from Jamia Millia Islamia.

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Written by Aman Sharma

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