World Press Freedom Day: Protect Journalists, Save Democracy

Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*

Hailed as the fourth pillar of democracy, the press – its reporters, editors, and photographers – have always risked their lives and livelihoods to uphold truth, journalistic ethics and disseminate proper information. Such gigantic tasks require a degree of freedom, which is guaranteed by the constitutions of democratic nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every year 3rd May, is a day of showing solidarity with journalists, photo-journalists, and all associated with the media who brave the toughest conditions to disseminate information and bring news from across the world to the homes of people. The very objective of World Press Freedom Day is to ensure the protection and safety of the press in the face of attacks against its independence, to discuss journalistic ethics, and to celebrate journalists who gave their lives in the pursuit of truth.

It was in the year 1993 when the United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 as the World Press Freedom Day. This declaration came after a recommendation made in 1991 at the twenty-sixth General Conference session of UNESCO. The declaration also came as a result of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration; a statement which was produced by African journalists about press freedom, presented at a seminar held by UNESCO, which concluded on May 3.

The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is; “Information as a Public Good”. Public Good is a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society, either by the government or by a private individual or organization. It is especially significant for the press, which deals with information on a global scale, to effectively use and disseminate it to the world citizenry while empowering journalists.

According to the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, the above theme underlines the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information. It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content.”

António Guterres, ninth secretary-general of the United Nations, in his message on #WorldPressFreedomDay, says in too many countries, journalists and media workers face censorship, abuse, harassment, detention and even death, simply for doing their jobs. Hence all governments do everything in their power to support a free, independent, and diverse media.

According to UNESCO, the day dedicated to freedom of press underscores the need for governments and people across the world to ”respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.”

The UNESCO advocates for steps to ensure the economic viability of news media; mechanisms for ensuring transparency of Internet companies; and enhanced media and information literacy (MIL) capacities that enable people to recognize and value, as well as defend and demand, journalism as a vital part of information as a public good.

But in the present world, the sanctity and ethical value of journalism are on the verge of extinction and disinformation is spreading faster rate as many countries in the world are ruled by authoritarian, oligarchic, and despotic rulers with journalists’ working in the fretful atmosphere. In India situation is precarious and horrendous.

According to Reporters Without Borders, which published its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries (i.e., more than 130 countries).”. It has further noted that “only 12 of the Index’s 180 countries (7%) can claim to offer a favourable environment for journalism”.

According to Reporters Without Borders, India has been listed under countries considered “bad” for journalism and is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists trying to do their job properly, with four journalists killed in connection with their work in 2020”.

In fact, the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists has it that six, not four, journalists have been killed in India in 2020. Explaining the reasons for categorising India as “bad” for journalism and among dangerous countries for journalists, the report says Bharatiya Janata Party supporters and the Hindutva ideology have created an environment of intimidation for journalists who are critical of the government by labeling them as “anti-national” or “anti-state”. India shares the “bad” classification with Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. The report has also specifically called out Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a head of government who has tightened “his grip on media”.

What is more disquieting is that, for the second successive year, India has been ranked abysmally at 142 among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index? India is witnessing a continuous decline in World Press Freedom Index in the last few years. India was dropped by two places to rank 142 on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index and by 6 slots from 136th position it had held in 2015.

Among India’s neighbors, Nepal is at 106, Sri Lanka at 127, and Myanmar, before the military coup, features at 140. However, Pakistan and Bangladesh secured 145 and 152 ranks on the index, respectively. Yet again, Norway, followed by Finland and Denmark, have emerged at the top, securing the first three spots respectively. Eritrea in the horn of Africa is at the bottom, ranked 180. Other countries at the bottom are China (177), North Korea (179), and Turkmenistan (178).

On India’s draconian new Information Technology rules to regulate content on digital news media platforms, the RSF report says: “Given that the index had been worked out before India came out with new rules to “regulate” online news platforms, along with other digital content providers, in February this year, the situation of press freedom in the country has further deteriorated. The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 has been widely criticized, for posing an impediment to a thriving digital news media space.”

The report has minced no words in delineating how the BJP-led government under Modi is detrimental to journalism. It says, journalists “are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and retaliations instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials”. It further adds that 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”.

According to report , 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 synchronized hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers are chilling and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered,”

The report has also specifically touched upon how the Indian government in 2020 took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to muzzle, and throttle press freedom. It has also noted that the situation in Kashmir as “still very worrying”, as journalists continued to be harassed by police and paramilitary forces, which it says are due to “utterly Orwellian content regulations”.

“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),” . What is more dangerous that some dissenters are punished on charges of sedition by some BJP ruled states

The report has also shed light on “extremely violent social media campaigns” organised by the BJP and Hindutva supporters that openly call for “public condemnation” of journalists who are critical of the government, and they even go to the extent of issuing death threats “especially if they are women”.

The report has highlighted the 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”. It has also highlighted 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 the appeal”.

According to The Wire, 55 Indian journalists were threatened, arrested, and booked by the Centre and state governments for their reporting on COVID-19. FIRs have been filed against several journalists of both regional and national media. The sum total of the crackdown was published in a report by Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group, that said, as journalists were charged for “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020.”

The deplorable status, lack of liberty on the part of Indian journalists, and fretful atmosphere they work is clearly revealed in a letter addressed to the editor of a national TV channel by former and current employees working in that channel which is viral in social media. Though, the editor dubs it fake, baseless and a malicious attempt to defame and tarnish the image, the truth is that what has been alleged in letter reflects how our journalists are denied freedom, liberty in India now.

They have alleged that they are tired, dismayed, upset, angry, and disillusioned looking at all that is unfolding around them. They argue that journalists should be on the side of the people. Always be on the side of humanity. Always hold those powerful accountable for their actions. But in the name of “journalism”, these days is nothing but blatant public relation for a government that has failed on every count and let down the people of this country.

They have also expressed angst for being made spineless and coerced to blame the opposition instead of ruling classes, diverting the attention of people from real issues, discussing overtly communal Hindu-Muslim stories, spinning every story that is not in favour of the government, and maintaining utter silence when it comes to questioning the incompetent, inept central government.

They have felt guilty for not having the courage and fortitude to even take Narendra Modi’s name and criticize him for the current mess. They have expressed agony, despondency for not being allowed to ask tough questions to the government and show the ground reality especially when people are dying across the country due to pandemic assuming ghastly shape.

They have made the charge that precious air time where people’s sufferings can be brought to the notice of the government is being used to target the farmers, which obviously suits the BJP agenda. And they are forced to choose to find soft targets, engage in selective targeting of non-BJP governments and leaders, and peddle BJP IT cell agenda. They express anguish not being able to ask questions to Prime Minister Modi for his callous attitude and misgovernance, the editors are hell-bent on saving his image and protect him from getting a bad name.

Freedom of press is interlinked, interwoven with success of democracy .At the back of nationwide protests against government policies and a crackdown on civil liberties, India has fallen two places in the 2020 Democracy Index report released by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The country was ranked 51st in 2019. The report observes that there has been significant “democratic backsliding” by the authorities in the past year, due to which it has been categorised as a “flawed democracy.”

India has fallen from a global ranking of 27 in 2015 to 53 in 2020. The slippage has not come due to electoral processes and political participation where, as most of us will accept, India continues to do well. The problem is on the side of political culture and civil liberties, where since Narendra Modi took over in 2014 India has declined.

Earlier in the month of March, in its annual report on global political rights and liberties, the US-based non-profit Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy”. Later, Sweden-based V-Dem Institute was harsher in its latest report on democracy. It said India had become an “electoral autocracy”.

The rankings blame Mr. Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP government for the backsliding of democracy. Under Mr. Modi’s watch, they say, there has been increased pressure on human rights groups, intimidation of journalists and activists, and a spate of attacks, especially against Muslims. This, they add, has led to a worsening of political and civil liberties in the country.

Freedom House said civil liberties have been in decline since Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, and that India’s “fall from the upper ranks of free nations” could have a more damaging effect on the world’s democratic standards. Hence, it is hight time all should try to protect journalists, their freedom and save our fledgling democracy. Journalist should try to provide correct information to people as public good and unravell truth, target rulers, ask tough question to powerful people, interpret all policies and decisions of government in pro-people angle.

 

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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