Freedom of Press in jeopardy

Press freedom in India is in serious jeopardy. The country has become a dangerous place for journalists to report and the situation is worsening. Out of 180 countries that were ranked for their press freedom by global media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), India stood at 138, five slots lower than in 2016. India’s performance on media freedom is shameful especially since we are boasting about having a vibrant democracy. While Norway has the highest press freedom in the world and North Korea the least, India is closer to the bottom. Pakistan is just one rank behind India. Many Indians pat themselves on the back for being better off than Pakistan. The RSF rankings suggest that with regard to media freedom, there is little for us to gloat.

In fact, the RSF report praises Pakistan for having the most vibrant media in Asia. The RSF report slams India’s Hindu nationalists for their intolerance. They are “trying to purge all manifestations” of what they deem to be anti-national thinking from the national debate, it says, pointing out that reporting that “annoys” the ruling BJP or any “criticism of Hindutva” evokes “a torrent of online insults and calls for the death of the reporter.” Importantly, most of these taunts and threats are coming from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s troll army, it says. Three journalists, including Gauri Lankesh, were killed last year. The numbers are likely to be far higher as several journalists were killed in “circumstances that are unclear,” the report says.

Previously, it was mainly in India’s conflict zones that journalists faced violence and threats from militants, the security forces and the government. Under the Modi government, journalists in the rest of India, too, are vulnerable to physical and other violence if they criticise the BJP government and its policies or draw attention to negative aspects of Indian culture and society. Only a few weeks ago, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a circular that was ostensibly aimed at "fake news" but was more likely aimed at using media accreditation as a whip to get journalists to toe the government line. While the accreditation guidelines were subsequently withdrawn, it underscores the lengths to which the government will go to silence "inconvenient" journalists. Media freedom is essential for the health of our democracy. Sadly, under the Modi government, it is being systematically undermined. Holding elections alone is not sufficient in a democracy. Democratic institutions must be allowed to thrive. The Constitution guarantees us the freedom of speech. That right is dying. No democracy can survive without a constantly vigilant media. Civil society must speak up against the Modi government’s silencing of the media.

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