The international NGO, Reporters Without Borders, released its annual World Press Freedom Index (WPFI). The index ranks 180 countries based on an amalgamation of qualitative and quantitative analysis that examines pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, quality of infrastructure for news production, and violence against journalists and media persons. India ranked 138, down two points from last year, and five points from 2016.
The Press Council of India has sincerejected the Reporters Without Borders ranking, citing “lack of clarity” in the methodology employed. With the index having India performing worse than countries like Afghanistan, Palestine, Nepal, Kosovo, Mali and Chad, the incredulity of the council is not only understandable, but also shared by most of us, even those critical of Indian mainstream media.
Massage is the Medium
Be that as it may, there is genuine reason for concern. And one needn’t trot out an exaggerated report card to believe that, ostensibly the largest democracy in the world, India has become a breeding ground for a biased, stifled media, one that is increasingly being hijacked by vested interests, and for a hostile environment of abuse and violence against journalists who manage to escape these attempts at control.
Within a truly democratic and secular framework, the media is conceptualised as the ‘fourth estate’, which must be allowed to function independent of government to maintain a system of checks and balances on the power of the State, and to objectively observe, report, analyse and critique its actions to communicate to the people at large.
Unfortunately, in India, the media is increasingly perceived to have morphed into an extension of the State, often resorting to sensationalism at the cost of visibility to issues crucial for the welfare of the people, with its bandsof cheerleaders and blanket critics.
It is also dangerous for a country to have such a seemingly high degree and intensity of State control over sections of the media. Not only does it contribute to the fostering of an allpowerful government that can escape media scrutiny, but it also makes it much easier to silence and punish any opposition to government by fabricating a case, sensationalising it through news media, and launching a State-sponsored media trial.
The gravity of the situation is made starker if we examine the role of the media during the Emergency in 1975-77, a period where freedom of speech was curtailed and, indeed, blacked out. Even in that atmosphere, the opposition parties and most other stakeholders (barring, perhaps, industry and a large section of the media that caved in to Indira Gandhi’s diktats) in Indian democracy were united in their opposition to the government of the day.
Contemporary social media in India — increasingly the platform of choice for untrammelled and unchecked discourse, and exchange and dissemination of information and ‘news’ —is chock-full of ‘fake news’, gross distortions of facts to serve political ends, and sensationalism. Mainstream media, in this context, runs the risk of becoming the proverbial ‘second paper’ for a gullible readership/viewership. News that can be trusted is under serious risk.
Compare this scenario to the US media. Most mainstream platforms are so vehemently against the current establishment that President Donald Trump routinely accuses them of being agents and culprits of ‘fake news’ and character assassinations, thereby levelling the ground between social and mainstream media.
In contrast, the silence against State tyranny, at worst, and ‘leaning heavily on the media’, at best, in India, is a manifestation of the extreme fear of persecution in civil society, which leads to the phenomenon of self-censorship.
Privately, journalists, editors and media persons admit that they’re under extreme pressure from government to serve its agenda. But by complying, rather than collectively fighting back, they’re severely exacerbating the problem.
This situation, of course, is not confined to India. Nepal has witnessed State oppression of the media and unlawful detention and torture of journalists in the aftermath of the first local, provincial and parliamentary elections in 20 years. Journalists were victims of physical violence by party activists and politicians, and many were denied access to voting stations.
In the backdrop and aftermath of the ‘Euromaidan Revolution’ in 2014, Ukraine was perceived as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with over 300 documented cases of violence against journalists, including abduction, illegal detaining and death. But countries with worse conditions for media to operate in should hardly be made a yardstick for India’s press freedom and manoeuvrability quotient.
India, its government(s), its media as well as its people, most certainly need to introspect on the Indian government’s — and, indeed, some state governments’ — stranglehold over the media, and the fear it inspires in journalists. Better to conduct this exercise now, than before freedom of the press is completely compromised in the country.