As the world’s largest democracy, India should have had a free press to go with that status. But the Indian press has been anything but free in the more than 68 years since the country became independent. The latest report of the Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has painted a sorry picture of the kinds of stress Indian jourlists are working under. Violence against jourlists here has been growing over the years, especially for investigative jourlists and reporters in the field. Covering Kashmir continues to be a nightmare for jourlists, with the government remaining very sensitive about the state. Governments in the country have been framing draconian laws and local officials filing frequent lawsuits to bring jourlists to heel. All sorts of pressure are applied by the powers-be to make media houses follow self-censorship. In several states, attacks by armed groups on jourlists are on the rise; in 2015, the most dangerous state was Uttar Pradesh with almost one attack on a jourlist every month and four jourlists done to death. Earlier in 2014, the tiol Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) furnished figures of an attack against a jourlist every three days. Politicians and administrators never tire of piously mouthing the cliche of the press as the fourth pillar of democracy for its watchdog role — and then doing everything possible to muzzle it. Till date, the Indian government has felt no need to make provisions for creating a special unit to combat violence against jourlists. Small wonder then that in the latest annual World Press Freedom Index, India has been ranked at a lowly 133 among 180 countries.
To put matters into perspective, communist Chi which requires little provocation to throw jourlists into jail, is ranked 176; extremist violence-ridden Pakistan occupies the 147th rank. Supposedly free and democratic India is thus keeping poor company. In fact, the outlook for jourlists in the country was bleaker last year when India was ranked 136th, and quite abysmal in 2014 when India slid to 140 in the index. Overall, factors like media pluralism, independence, environment and self-censorship, transparency, infrastructure, legal framework, abuses and safety of jourlists have been used to rank countries on press freedom. Significantly, RSF has seen a decline in press freedom around the world. ‘All of the indicators show deterioration. Numerous authorities are trying to regain control of their countries, fearing overly open public debate’, the RSF secretary general has said. Its report has also warned of ‘a new era of propaganda’ in which tiol authorities are using new media technologies to appeal directly to the public with their own information. At the same time, authorities are growing more intolerant of those who represent independent information, which means that jourlists are getting in their way and are therefore treated harshly. In several Latin American, African and Middle East countries, jourlists have to run the gauntlet of institutiol and extremist violence, organized crime and widespread corruption. In this backdrop, the achievements of mature democracies like Finland, Netherlands and Norway, the top three consistently in the press freedom index, need to be appreciated.
According to Reporters Without Borders, growing right wing extremism in India means that jourlists and bloggers will continue to be at risk, being ‘attacked and athematized by various religious groups that are quick to take offence’. At the slightest likelihood of emergency situations or sensitive religious and political matters, press freedom in the country is automatically hit. The situation is thus ‘worsening’ in India although ‘its media are dymic and much more capable of playing the role of democracy’s watchdog than the media in most other countries in last third of the index’, says the report. Urging a tiol action plan for the safety of jourlists, RSF has targeted Prime Minister rendra Modi for being seemingly ‘indifferent’ to the threats and problems confronting the press. It has to be remembered that our constitution makers did not feel the need for a separate provision to guarantee freedom of the press. Rather, they gave a broad scope to Article 19(1)(a), guaranteeing the right to freedom of speech and expression, under which the press can operate freely — albeit with ‘reasoble’ restrictions as enjoined in Art 19(2). The higher courts of the land, in the course of several landmark judgments, have safeguarded the freedom of the press down the years. But judging by the way successive governments in India have been ham-handedly using archaic, British raj laws related to Official Secrets and Sedition, as well as actively undermining the RTI Act — it is clear that for jourlists in this country, the danger continues to be clear and present.