Freedom of the press in peril

Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*

Freedom of the press is an important ingredient of democracy. World Press Freedom Day is observed on May 3 every year since 1993 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted this day to mark the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration by UNESCO in 1991. The Windhoek Declaration is considered a benchmark for ensuring press freedom around the world. It all began at a seminar in Windhoek in 1991, but the ideas exchanged by African journalists and media professionals acted as a catalyst to encourage press freedom, independence, and pluralism in Africa and in other parts of the world.

2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s decision to proclaim International Press Freedom Day,” as per UNESCO. The declaration aimed to promote the development of a free, independent, and pluralistic press. It recognized the fundamental importance of the media in informing societies and affirmed that the free flow of information was a cornerstone of democracy. The day is celebrated every year to educate the public regarding the role of media on a global level. The day acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect the commitment to press freedom. The day is also a reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

In 2023, the theme for World Press Freedom Day is “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for All Other Human Rights,” highlighting the crucial role that freedom of expression plays in promoting and protecting human rights. It also emphasizes the need to defend and promote an open and independent media environment where journalists can work without fear of violence, harassment, or censorship. The theme aims to raise awareness about the importance of press freedom, the challenges facing journalists today, and the role that the media plays in advancing human rights and democratic values globally.

The global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) comes out with a global ranking of press freedom every year. Reporters Without Borders is a non-profit organization that examined 180 nations across the world and highlighted their working conditions in terms of Journalism and Mass Media.

The report is being published on World Press Freedom Day (3 May).  In its 21st edition of the World Press Freedom Index, known as World Press Freedom Index 2023, the media watchdog has pointed out that, the situation is very serious for journalists in 31 countries, “difficult” in 42, “problematic” in 55, and “good” or “satisfactory” in 52 countries. The environment for journalism is “bad” in seven out of ten countries, and satisfactory in only three out of ten. As the 19th worst performer, India finds itself among the 31 countries where RSF calls the situation for journalists “very serious”.

World Press Freedom Day came as a rude shock to India as it slipped further down the rankings on the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI). India was placed at 161st — down from 150th last year — on a list of 180 countries, with Afghanistan (152) and Pakistan (150) placed higher on the list. In 2021 India was ranked 142. India’s performance in the world press index has gone from bad to worse with a ranking of 133 in 2016 slipping to 161 out of 180 in 2023, registering the steepest decline of 11 points in one year and 18 points since 2013. India has been progressively sliding on this index over the years. In 2002, the first year, it was placed at 80th on a list of 139 countries. In 2003, it slipped to 128th among 166 countries. In 2013, it was at 140th.

The Nordic trio of Norway, Ireland, and Denmark continued to occupy the top three positions in press freedom, while Vietnam, China, and North Korea constituted the bottom three Countries ranked lower than India including Bangladesh (163), Turkey (165), Saudi Arabia (170) and Iran (177). China and North Korea occupy the last spots at 179 and 180, respectively.

India is several spots behind Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have improved their rankings this year to be at positions 150 and 152, respectively. What is distressing is that India slips 11 positions while Pakistan rises 7 steps and ranks at 150th.

The World Press Freedom Index comprises five variables, for which scores are computed and then countries are ranked. The five sub-indicators are the Political indicator, Economic indicator, Legislative indicator, social indicator, and Security indicator.

The most worrying collapse for India is in the Security indicator category as India’s ranking was lowest in the safety of journalists category (172), which implies that only eight countries rank worse than India out of 180 on this parameter. So, India is worse than all in terms of ensuring the security of journalists in the world, other than China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Myanmar.

Another parameter on which India performs grimly (169th, down from 145th last year) is the Political indicator, which “evaluates the degree of support and respect for media autonomy, vis-à-vis political pressure from the state or from other political actors. “On the Economic indicator, India ranks 155th, down from 149th last year; on the Legislative indicator, India is down to 144th from 120th; on the social indicator, India has slipped from 127th last year to 143rd this year.

In terms of safety, the report says “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media” with “an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year”. “Journalists are exposed to all kinds of physical violence including police violence, ambushes by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt local officials. Supporters of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu far right, wage all-out online attacks on any views that conflict with their thinking,” the report says.

“The situation is also still very worrisome in Kashmir, where reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries, with some being subjected to so-called ‘provisional’ detention for several years,” the report adds.

According to the report, “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media, and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right”. “Originally a product of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive but things changed radically in the mid-2010s when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party the BJP, and the big families dominating the media.

The prime example is undoubtedly the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s, who owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians. Similarly, the takeover of the NDTV channel at the end of 2022 by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also very close to Narendra Modi, signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media. Very early on, Modi took a critical stance vis-à-vis journalists, seeing them as “intermediaries” polluting the direct relationship between himself and his supporters. Indian journalists who are too critical of the government are subjected to all-out harassment and attack campaigns by Modi devotees known as bhakts.”

According to some journalists, “In the last 9 years, politics has had a significant impact on the media, with 90 percent of the media becoming part of the government’s propaganda and publicity. Other journalists are intimidated by threats of imprisonment and being strangled financially. The decline in India’s press freedom ranking is due to learned and discerning people turning away from the mainstream media as they recognize the propaganda and feel dissatisfied with it.

Legally too, there are several ways journalists are harassed by those in power – including through charges of sedition and criminal defamation, according to RSF. “Indian law is protective in theory but charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as “anti-national”,” the report notes.

There is a lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms, according to RSF. “For the most part, only Hindu men from upper castes hold senior positions in journalism or are media executives ­– a bias that is reflected in media content. For example, fewer than 15 percent of the participants in major evening talk shows are women.”

Even in terms of the safety of journalists, India is performing poorly RSF notes: “With an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media.” The report specifically talks about the targeted harassment of women journalists online and the ongoing police interference in how the press is treated in Kashmir.

“The World Press Freedom Index shows enormous volatility in situations, with major rises and falls and unprecedented changes, such as Brazil rising 18 places and Senegal falling 31 places.” This insecurity is the result of heightened aggressiveness by authorities in many nations, as well as growing hostility against journalists on social media and in the physical world. “Volatility is also a result of growth in the fake content industry, which produces and distributes disinformation and provides the tools for its production,” stated RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire in the report. While India has consistently ranked low in recent years, it has dropped to the lowest this year.

The 2023 Index spotlights the rapid effects that the digital ecosystem’s fake content industry has had on press freedom. In 118 countries (two-thirds of the 180 countries evaluated by the Index), most of the Index questionnaire’s respondents reported that political actors in their countries were often or systematically involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns. The remarkable development of artificial intelligence is wreaking further havoc on the media world. The disinformation industry disseminates manipulative content on a huge scale.

According to New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzbergerall, over the world, independent journalists and press freedoms are under attack. Without journalists to provide news and information that people can depend on, we will continue to see the unravelling of civic bonds, the erosion of democratic norms, and the weakening of the trust – in institutions and in each other – that is so essential to the global order.

The internet also unleashed the avalanche of misinformation, propaganda, punditry, and clickbait that now overwhelms our information ecosystem, often drowning out credible journalism and accelerating the decline in societal trust. When the free press erodes, democratic erosion almost always follows. Sure enough, this period of weakness for the press has coincided with destabilized democracies and emboldened autocracies.

According to Mahatma Gandhi, “Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego.” Similarly, Nelson Mandela had told: “A free press is one of the pillars of democracy.” According to Calvin Coolidge, “The freedom of the human mind is recognized in the right to free speech and free press.” George Orwell had told: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose”. According to Mazen Darwish, no prison is big enough to contain free speech.” Hence, it is imperative to protect the freedom of the press.




The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.


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