While India has not slipped further on the World Press Freedom Index 2021 published by the international journalism not-for profit body, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), however, it continues to be counted among the countries classified “bad” for journalism and is termed as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their jobs properly.
The latest index released on Tuesday ranks 180 countries, topped, yet again, by Norway followed by Finland and Denmark, while Eritrea is at the bottom. China is ranked 177, and is only above North Korea at 179 and Turkmenistan at 178.
India is ranked 142, same as last year, after it had consistently slid down from 133 in 2016. In the South Asian neighbourhood, Nepal is at 106, Sri Lanka at 127, Myanmar (before the coup) at 140, Pakistan at 145 and Bangladesh at 152.
The report released on Tuesday stated that India shares the “bad” classification with Brazil, Mexico and Russia.
For India, the latest report has blamed an environment of intimidation created by BJP supporters for any critical journalist, who, the report said, is marked as “anti-state” or “anti-national”.
It said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “tightens his grip on media”. With “four journalists killed in connection with their work in 2020, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly”.
Journalists “are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials” and, the report said, ever since “the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure has increased on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”.
“Indians who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to radical right-wing Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the public debate. The coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers are terrifying and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered,” the report said.
RSF has highlighted that the “campaigns are particularly violent when the targets are women”. Further, it said that criminal prosecutions are meanwhile “often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities” with sections for sedition also used.
“In 2020, the government took advantage of the coronavirus crisis to step up its control of news coverage by prosecuting journalists providing information at variance with the official position. The situation is still very worrying in Kashmir, where reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries and must cope with utterly Orwellian content regulations, and where media outlets are liable to be closed, as was the case with the valley’s leading daily, the Kashmir Times.
“While the pro-government media pump out a form of propaganda, journalists who dare to criticise the government are branded as “anti-state,” “anti-national” or even “pro-terrorist” by supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” said the latest report.
It also stated that this, “exposes” the critical journalists “to public condemnation in the form of extremely violent social media hate campaigns that include calls for them to be killed, especially if they are women”.
Further, “when out reporting in the field, they are physically attacked by BJP activists, often with the complicity of the police,” and “finally, they are also subjected to criminal prosecutions”.
Speaking about the larger Asia-Pacific region, the report mentioned that “instead of drafting new repressive laws in order to impose censorship, several of the region’s countries have contented themselves with strictly applying existing legislation that was already very draconian – laws on ‘sedition,’ ‘state secrets’ and ‘national security’.”
Also, it said, there is no “shortage of pretexts” to use these laws, and the “strategy for suppressing information is often two-fold”. One, it said, “governments use innovative practices often derived from marketing to impose their own narrative within the mainstream media, whose publishers are from the same elite as the politicians” and, second, “politicians and activists wage a merciless war on several fronts against reporters and media outlets that don’t toe the official line”.
It called India’s application of “these methods” as “particularly instructive”.
The report has also highlighted throttling of freedom of expression on social media, and specifically mentioned that in India the “arbitrary nature of Twitter’s algorithms also resulted in brutal censorship” highlighting that “[a]fter being bombarded with complaints generated by troll armies about The Kashmir Walla magazine, Twitter suddenly suspended its account without any possibility of appeal”.
The RSF said that Asia Pacific’s “authoritarian regimes have used the Covid-19 pandemic to perfect their methods of totalitarian control of information, while the ‘dictatorial democracies’ have used it as a pretext for imposing especially repressive legislation with provisions combining propaganda and suppression of dissent”. It added that the “behaviour of the region’s few real democracies have meanwhile shown that journalistic freedom is the best antidote to disinformation”. It did not classify which country falls under which category.
It also stated that the 2021 report “shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation,” and, the “2021 Edelman Trust barometer reveals a disturbing level of public mistrust of journalists, with 59% of respondents in 28 countries saying that journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false”. The report noted that “only 12 of the Index’s 180 countries (7%) can claim to offer a favourable environment for journalism”.
The Indian government has been concerned about its low rankings in such international indices, and had last year started studying them to understand how to improve. Soon after the index was released last year, Union Minister for Information and Broadcast Prakash Javadekar had tweeted on May 2: “Media in India enjoy absolute freedom. We will expose, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about ‘Freedom of Press’ in India.”