Press freedom rank: 'Modi's troll army' takes India down

Press freedom rank: 'Modi's troll army' takes India down

Modi troll army and Gauri Lankesh's death were cited as possible reasons for fall in rank.

People taking part in a candle light vigil at India Gate in New Delhi against killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh.PTI.
Modi troll army and Gauri Lankesh's death were cited as possible reasons for fall in rank.

India dropped two ranks to the 138 position from 136 last year, according to the latest press freedom index report released on Wednesday by the global watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The RSF warned that reporters were the target of a growing wave of authoritarianism with leaders whipping up hostility against them.

It warned that a "climate of hatred and animosity" towards journalists combined with growing attempts to control the media pose a "threat to democracies."

In the Indian context, the report flagged “anti-national” hysteria being whipped up by Hindu nationalists as a cause of growing self-censorship. It also cited reports about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's troll army who are targeting journalists with hateful online smear campaigns and messages. 

"In India (down two at 138th), hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay," read a sentence from the report.  

The report also mentioned three murdered journalists in 2017, such as Gauri Lankesh. It also mentioned gag orders by the government by invoking Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.

It states that though journalists have not yet been convicted of sedition, the threat encourages self-censorship. It also mentioned that Kashmiri journalists are targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent.

Around the world

On the global stage, the report emphasised that press freedom around the world is under threat from a triple whammy of US President Donald Trump, Russia and China's bid to crush all dissent. 

The group accused the world's three superpowers - the US, China and Russia - of leading the charge against press freedom, with Trump regularly launching personal attacks on reporters and Beijing exporting its "media control model" to strangle dissent elsewhere in Asia.

The slide towards "strongman" and populist politics in Europe, stoked by Moscow, was threatening freedoms in the region where they were once safest, it added, with Hungary, Slovakia and Poland setting off alarm bells.

Czech President Milos Zeman turned up at a press conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words "for journalists" while Slovakia's former leader Robert Fico called journalists "filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes" and "idiotic hyenas".

"The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is dangerous and a threat to democracy," RSF chief Christophe Deloire told AFP.

The RSF said that hostility towards the media is "no longer confined to authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Egypt", but was poisoning the political atmosphere in some of the great democracies.

"More and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy's essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion," the report said, picking out Trump, Modi and Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte for particular criticism.

The US president had referred to reporters as "enemies of the people", a term once used by Stalin, it said.

The RSF accused Vladimir Putin's Russia of "stifling independent voices at home... and extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT (Russian Today) and Sputnik."

It had even harsher words for Beijing, saying "Xi Jinping's China is getting closer and closer to a contemporary version of totalitarianism.

Now the Chinese government "is trying to establish a 'new world media order' under its influence, by exporting its oppressive methods, information censorship system and Internet surveillance tools," it added.

"Its unabashed desire to crush all pockets of public resistance, unfortunately, has imitators in Asia," the RSF said, condemning Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's "ruthless offensive" against the media.

It said Beijing's influence and tactics were also being felt in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Turkey, the world's biggest jailer of journalists, has fallen into the most repressive 25 countries in the world.

North Korea remains the most repressive country, closely followed by Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria and then China.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Vietnam, Sudan and Cuba also remain among the worst offenders, according to the RSF ranking of 180 countries.

Malta tumbled 18 places to 65 after the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

But not all the news was bad. Ecuador jumped 13 places after tensions eased between the government and privately-owned media, while Justin Trudeau's Canada entered the European-dominated top 20.

Jamaica climbed to eighth overall, above Belgium and New Zealand, and the Gambia jumped 21 places, the biggest rise in Africa, just ahead of Angola and Zimbabwe.

As usual, Scandinavian countries topped the list with Norway deemed as having the world's freest press for the second year in a row.

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