The world celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday even as India dropped 3 places to a rank of 136 in the latest World Press Freedom Index, compiled by the non-profit organization, Reporters Without Borders (RWB).
On Tuesday, media watchdog, The Hoot, released a report (http://www.thehoot.org/free-speech/media-freedom/india-2016-17-the-silencing-of-journalists-10070) that states that 54 attacks, and 25 cases of threatening journalists took place in the past 16 months. Though 7 journalists were killed, reasonable evidence of their journalism being the motive for the murder is available only in one case, the report’s authors wrote.
“The actual number will certainly be bigger, because last week Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir said during Question Hour in the Lok Sabha that 142 attacks on journalists took place between 2014-15,” the report stated.
Despite these grim statistics, some senior journalists and media industry veterans still feel that India is in a much better position with regards to freedom of expression as compared to other countries around the world.
However, the recent spate of aggressive demonstrations against journalists or, for that matter, anyone not agreeing with a given viewpoint is something to take note of.
Speaking about India’s ranking in terms of freedom of press, veteran journalist turned educator John Thomas said, “It rankles when reading of international media associations rating India’s press freedom as the lowest in a decade and a half. Especially when I have prided in India’s media freedoms, comparing my experiences of several years of reporting and writing in countries where press freedoms are curtailed, and also having to report and write for media markets ever mindful of how the idea of freedoms vary in those countires."
On what has changed in India, Thomas said that one readily visible change is in the level of intolerance of news and views that are at variance from the official version.
For example, on the situation in India, RWB note on their website, “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition, but the threat encourages self-censorship,” read a statement on the group’s website.
On similar lines, Hartosh Singh Bal, Political Editor at The Caravan, calls for introspection. “Comparatively, in the last few years, there has been an immense qualitative difference (in terms of attitude towards media). It is not like the Congress were saints, but the systemic and co-ordinated assault on media by the government, which is ideological, is unprecedented. In some ways, journalists themselves are failing to test the limits of what is possible, but the major blame should be with the government. In this scenario, the Prime Minister tweeting about his commitment to a free and fair media is hypocritical,” he said.
If the fault, somewhere, lies with the media then the onus is also on journalists to use their freedom responsibly, opines Abhijit Majumder, Managing Editor of Mail Today.
“India has a great deal of press freedom, even in a conflict zone like Kashmir. Curbs on press freedom are often self-imposed, often under revenue pressure. While we must continually demand greater freedom, we must also deliberate on greater responsibility it brings,” he said.
Malyalam language daily, Mathrubhumi, also expressed solidarity with journalists by black shading news columns on its front page.
Speaking to exchange4media, MV Shreyams Kumar, Director (Marketing) at Mathrubhumi said, “India is a strong democracy where there is freedom for media, but in many parts of the world, the situation is grim. For example, in Mexico, journalists are getting killed by the drug mafia. The situation is bad in some countries in Africa and others. Our founders started this newspaper during the freedom movement. We have always stood for freedom of press. So, this is a show of solidarity with journalists across the globe.”
Meanwhile, the hashtag #worldpressfreedomday was trending today as journalists, ministers and others came out to support a free and unbiased media.