Press freedom: Dubious distinction

It is an irony that India, which prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, is ranked a poor 140 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, 2019, compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Media freedom is the life breath of democracy and without it, no country can claim to be democratic in the real sense. Most countries that come behind India in the ranking are democracies only in name or autocracies or authoritarian regimes. India’s rank used to be in the range of 100-110 for many years, which itself was not a creditable ranking. But it has steadily gone down, especially in the last three years. In 2017, it fell three places from 133 to 136, and in 2018 two places to 138. Many cases of murders of journalists are not being fairly investigated. Attacks and other forms of violence are frequent, and they are also not being followed up effectively. 

The report notes that in India “where critics of Hindu nationalism are branded as anti-Indian, six journalists were murdered in 2018’’. It also states that the current election period, where there is a high degree of political and social polarisation, is particularly dangerous for journalists. There are hate campaigns against journalists, especially women journalists, and it is difficult to cover sensitive regions such as Kashmir. Those in power and authority have always been uncomfortable with or hostile to free media, though they pay lip service to freedom. There have been threats and intimidation and other ways to cow down the media and make it toe the official line or the line of those who wield power. Many in the media resist allurements, pressure and coercion, but the falling index is a sign of the dwindling numbers of those who show courage and stand up and resist. 

There are threats from many sources, such as the police, extremist groups like the Maoists, crime syndicates and other criminal groups, politicians of all kinds and parties and leaders of religious, social and other groups. But it has been noted that the current slide in freedom has coincided with the rise of right-wing groups and governments in many parts of the world, and in India, too. There may be internal reasons. Some media organisations have surrendered their freedom and compromised with those in power. But it is the external threats to freedom that the report is mainly concerned with. It says that there is a climate of fear that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment in the world, and the number of countries which are safe for journalists has continued to decline. The safety level is steadily going down in India. 

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