The latest Press Freedom Index prepared by the Paris-based non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) places India at 150 out of 180 countries. The index indicated a steady decline in press freedom in India in the past few years. What is concerning the nature of the index is the narrowing distance between India and countries with dictatorships and authoritarian governments. The countries which normally occupy the bottom of the index such as Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Myanmar, etc. are infamous for ruthless dictatorships, human rights violations, and absolute disregard for any democratic values. The media is used as a propaganda apparatus or as a branch of the government in these countries. An independent press does not exist in these countries where the media is either owned by the regime or people who are close to the regime. India’s recent performance in many of the global indexes related to independent media and press freedom show tendencies that are not apposite for the largest democracy in the world.
This sharp decline reveals a dangerous state of affairs in the functioning of media and democracy in India. The condition of the press in India is more often attributed to the vulnerabilities of Indian democracy and the attitude of the political leadership. The celebrated diversity in the media landscape in India never translated into a free and independent media ecosystem. RSF has pointed out three important factors such as politically controlled media, the safety of journalists, and the concentration of media ownership behind the downward spiral of press freedom in India. However, such a sharp decline in press freedom has failed to create any public sphere discourse in India. The silence of the civil society organs is the most worrying factor in this regard. Especially the political parties, academia, social activists, and the big media enterprises have never questioned or discussed the conditions which have led to the weakening of press freedom in India.
Indian democracy has been experiencing a turbulent situation in recent decades. This has undoubtedly affected the media in the country. However, the lack of meaningful discussions about the condition of the media remained a constant phenomenon during the past decades. The silence of the civil society on media freedom has compromised the role media can play in a democracy like India. The media’s political bias or absence of independent journalism never attracted any response from many sections of civil society. Blatant political bias and association with feudal and religious forces define the nature of civil society in India in contemporary times. This could be the primary reason behind the indifference of the sections of civil society to the erosion of democratic institutions like media in the country.
Similarly, the democratically elected governments in India never paid any attention to the deteriorating condition of press freedom in the country. Instead of creating a space for free and independent media, the government has always suspected the intentions of the international bodies monitoring the free press. More recently the various functionaries of the government tried to dismiss the authenticity of the press freedom index. The government of India has always taken a position that questions the credibility of these indexes. In 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting told Loksabha that the methodology used to calculate the index is questionable and non-transparent.
In 2020, the government decided to set up an “Index Monitoring Cell” (IMC) to look into the falling press freedom index. While setting up the monitoring cell then I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted on May 3, 2020, that the “Media has the power to inform and enlighten people. Media in India enjoy absolute freedom. We will expose sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray a bad picture of “Freedom of Press” in India”. The committee further submitted a report to the I&B Ministry with its recommendations. However, senior journalist P Sainath who was a member of the IMC wrote a strong dissenting note highlighting that the ‘right to dissent should be the central focus of press freedom’ in India.
The first World Press Freedom Index published in 2002 positioned India at 80. India’s ranking was on a continuous decline since 2010. The chart below depicts India’s ranking fluctuations in the last 20 years.
According to RSF, politically partisan media is one of the reasons behind the sharp decline of the index in recent years. Changes in the ownership patterns and political affiliation of media is the most significant transformation which took place in India in the past few decades. Mainstream media’s affiliation with political parties, vested interest groups, and their inability to act as independent media in a democracy are the biggest challenges faced by the media ecosystem in India. Along with these issues, corporatisation and monopoly in ownership are serious concerns about the media. The media in India is known for its size and diversity in the global media market. However, it is controlled by a few people and it directly reflects the issues media represents in the larger democracy. RSF in their Media Ownership Monitor argued that some of the leading outlets are controlled by individuals with political ties in India.
The safety of journalists is a grave concern in the Indian media landscape. Various independent international bodies position India as a dangerous country for journalists. In RSF’s 2021 report, India shares the third position with Yemen in the ranking of ‘most dangerous countries for journalists'. Similarly, the Global Impunity Index prepared Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) positions India 12th on their index where journalists are murdered, and their killers go free. India also tops the chart with the highest number of cases filed against journalists during Covid-19. According to the Free Speech Collective, 67 journalists faced cases during their work in 2020. Most of these cases were against smaller media outlets and small-town journalists. Various government authorities targeted journalists during COVID-19 for reporting the misuse of lockdown rules or questioning the public policy blunders of the governments.
According to RSF, India is among the five most dangerous countries for journalists. The incidents of journalists getting killed during their work portray the degree of violence against journalists in India. RSF argues that in the last 5 years the majority of fatalities originated from 10 countries which include India also. As per the UNESCO observatory, nearly 45 journalists were killed in India between 2010 to 2022.
According to CPJ, 88 journalists and media workers were killed in India between 1991 and 2021.
The attack on journalists and media practitioners has become an everyday reality in India. Weak legal frameworks, a lack of proactive measures from the government, and the nexus between politics, religion and business fuel these incidents. Misuse of existing laws by the authorities is a serious concern in this regard. P Sainath pointed out in his dissenting note to the IMC report that about 52 media-related laws and their misuse by the state in intimidating the journalists in India. The actions of the state and the actions of non-state actors are equally responsible for targeting journalists in India. This also points out the complete absence of accountability from the state in matters associated with violence against journalists. Intimidation of the press by the ruling regime is a norm in contemporary India. Sedition and UAPA cases filed against journalists in UP & Kashmir and various cases across the country are the best examples of this.
The condition of press freedom in India is dependent on factors such as the lack of proactive measures from the government, the silence of the civil society, weak legal framework, corporatization of media, etc. Larger political forces in India rarely take time to respond to the issues related to press freedom. Most of the time political parties limit their responses to social media posts. However, most of these attempts never succeeded in pressurising the government to take proactive steps or forming a public opinion. Very few political parties used their media platforms to critically evaluate the situation that led to the decline of press freedom in India.
Another important factor to consider here is the silence of the powerful media outlets in the country. No big media ever held meaningful discussions on falling press freedom or campaigned for a free and independent media ecosystem. Most of the newspapers carried minor reports about the latest ranking. Meanwhile, prime-time television rarely witnessed shouting matches or discussions to understand the issues behind the consistent bad performance of Indian media in the global index. Constant coverage and discussions in the media are essential in bringing issues related to the media to the mainstream. The silence and apathy of the media outlets about the situation question its interest in operating as the fourth pillar of democracy.
This is the right occasion to deliberate about the much-needed reforms in the media ecosystem in the country. Establishing plurality in ownership, better legal frameworks to protect journalists, and steps to reduce the influence of vested interest groups in Media operations are the immediate steps required to restore independent media. The recent incidents show us that India is steadily moving towards the reality of a captive press in a democracy. Every struggle to protect democracy and the constitution should include safeguarding the rights of journalists and freedom of the press in India. \At the same time, an attack on the free press can only be prevented by a joint resistance of all the sections of civil society.
(The writer teaches Media Studies at FLAME University, Pune)