The Press freedom in India

Recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its World Freedom Index 2020. It was widely discussed in India as India has dropped by two places to 142 out of 180 countries this year. India is already under a lot of criticism because of the thwarting of media voice and being unsafe for journalists. The poor ranking by RSF only strengthened the ongoing fears of journalism being unsafe in this country.

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What is ‘Reporters Without Borders’?

  • Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters Sans Frontieres) is an international non-profit and non-governmental organization working to safeguard the right to freedom of information.
  • RSF was formed in 1985 and is headquartered in Paris, France.
  • It works to promote free, independent, and pluralistic journalism. It also works to defend media workers worldwide from any potential and existing threats.
  • RSF works to uphold Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which protects the right to receive and share information regardless of frontiers.

What is the Press Freedom Index?

  • The RSF releases the Press Freedom Index every year since 2002 based on the countries’ Press Freedom records in the previous year.
  • The Index ranks a total of 180 countries and regions based on the level of freedom available to journalists.
  • It is a picture of the situation of media freedom based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of media, quality of the legislative framework, and safety of journalists in each country and region.
  • It does not rank public policies and RSF does not claim that the report is an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country or region.
  • Norway tops 2020 rankings for the fourth year in a row.
  • South Asia generally fares poor in the rankings with India being on 142nd rank, and Bangladesh and Pakistan also performing poorly than the last year. China is on the 177th rank in the index.

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What does the report say about India’s press freedom scenario?

  • As seen above, India’s ranking dropped by two ranks. It was 140 in 2019 and in 2020 it dropped to 142.
  • Even countries like Burkina Faso are ranked above India.
  • The report points that there have been press freedom violations, including police and political activist violence against journalists, reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt officials.
  • It criticizes the current government of forcing the media to toe its agenda.
  • It reports vicious social media campaigns against free and independent journalists, especially against women.
  • It reports that even if the situation seems better on the face of it, as there have not been any murders of journalists in 2019 as against six in 2018, the condition of independent journalism stays harsh.

What is the Status of Freedom of Press in India?

  • Lately, India’s media freedom has been a subject of vigorous discussions as there were incidents of heckling of journalists, muzzling of independent voices, and majoritarian pressures on it while reporting.
  • The Independent thinkers criticize the general media situation as being highly populist and sensationalist, and nationalist.
  • While some work independently and speak truth to the power, they are discarded as anti-national and anarchist.
  • Not only the central government but some of the state governments like the West Bengal, Gujarat, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh have been criticized for muzzling the free press.
  • Indian media has been under criticism for ignoring the plight of the poor and promoting jingoistic nationalism even in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and Media freedom

  • The misuse of the Epidemic Disease Act, Disaster Management Act, the law on sedition during the pandemic has showcased a threat to the free press.
  • The RSF also reported lodging of an alarming number of cases of police and judicial harassment of Indian journalists, mainly in connection with their coronavirus coverage.
  • Sedition cases have been lodged against journalists and summoned to the Police stations in cases regarding reporting of Coronavirus pandemic.
  • It also urged the Supreme Court to remind the central and state governments of their constitutional duty to respect press freedom.
  • One of the major reasons behind low ranking in the index has been the shutdown of the internet and consequent allowing of only 2G internet in Jammu and Kashmir.
  • The analysts also point that the daily press briefings on the pandemic have been suspended since May 11, without any reason.

What is the government doing to improve press freedom conditions?

  • The government responded to the low rankings in the Press Freedom Index by forming an ‘Index Monitoring cell’, a group comprising of senior government officials and journalists.
  • The Index monitoring cell will look at potential ways to improve India’s ranking at the World Press Freedom Index.
  • This group will also work with international agencies on the process followed to rank the countries.
  • The government is also working on a system to start engaging with the states on this issue, by asking them to appoint nodal officers to send regular updates about the state of journalists and complaints by the media houses.
  • This is in line with the government’s program to track the performance in 32 selected global rankings to drive reforms and growth.

What is the legal standing of press freedom in India?

  • Indian Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression which includes the freedom of the press.
  • Indian press and digital media have enjoyed a free space to raise the issues pertaining to the common people and promote their interests.
  • In Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras, the Supreme Court observed that “Freedom of speech & of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organization, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular government, is possible.

What are the challenges to the freedom of press in India?

  • Article 19 while gives freedom to the media. It comes with certain restrictions like sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, public order, morality, etc.
  • The definitions of public morality, public order are vague and create a lot of controversies.
  • Section 124A which is famous as sedition law has been used by different governments for narrow political ends and against court orders of use in rare cases where there is an incitement for violence only.
  • The rising majoritarian trend has been a bane for press freedom in India. The social media has been used to malign respected and free voices.
  • The institutional malice against the free press has been visible in police actions against veteran journalists.
  • The media itself is divided on various issues fighting for the claim of credibility and on the question of who represents authentic and unbiased journalism.

What is the way forward?

  • It is important to keep in mind that, a free press is an important bulwark of a democratic system of governance.
  • The media is rightly called as the fourth pillar of democracy as it is mandated to raise the voices of the underprivileged and the vulnerable sections of the society. It acts as a mirror of the society being the eyes and ears of the government with independent and impartial reporting.
  • The challenges to the free press must be recognized and steps must be taken to prevent its independence.
  • There should not be any witch-hunting of the journalists and media houses by the authorities merely for the reason of them doing their duty.
  • The Supreme Court must protect the media’s independence through Suo moto use of its writ jurisdiction wherever necessary.
  • The Index monitoring cell seems more of a number improving measure rather than creating a favorable atmosphere for the free press.
  • The government must not fall for the number crunch and must take measures that protect the freedom of the press and its work must be unhindered.
  • We must not shoot the messenger and not target the index itself for inaccurate reporting.

Conclusion

The democratic ethos of our country, the virtue of tolerance and the argumentative traditions of which Amartya Sen speaks so highly will only be protected if the voices are free. An independent and free press is in the interest of India and its socio-economic development. It must be protected and promoted if India is to remain a democratic republic. The idea of India includes free press as an inalienable part.

Practice Question for Mains

Are there any threats to free media in India? Critically analyze India’s record in protecting free voices and free media. (250 words)

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