As Press Freedom Rank Falls, Govt's New 'Index Monitoring Cell' to Meet on Thursday

The highly regarded journalist P. Sainath is one of two editors invited to be part of the panel that is otherwise full of bureaucrats. The other is India TV editor Rajat Sharma.

New Delhi: A Central ‘index monitoring cell’ tasked with examining the whys and hows of India’s poor ranking on global press freedom indices will have its first meeting by video conference on Thursday. But while its stated mandate is to come up with suggestions to help India improve its showing, a recent tweet by information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar suggests the Modi government’s own aim is to “expose, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about ‘Freedom of Press’ in India.”

Javadekar’s tweet – on May 3, World Press Freedom Day — was against the backdrop of the country slipping a few places in Reporters Sans Frontiers’ (RSF) latest survey, which placed India at 142 in the World Press Freedom Index, two positions down from 2019. India is now ranked below neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

The minister’s claim about the media in India enjoying “absolute freedom” comes at a time when the police in different parts of the country – from Kashmir to the Andamans, Gujarat (where an editor has been charged with sedition for reporting the possible sacking of the chief minister), Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur – have filed cases and even arrested journalists for news reports that have rubbed governments and politicians the wrong way.

The only time Javadekar and another senior minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, have spoken out against this police action is when two television anchors considered close to the ruling establishment – Arnab Goswami and Sudhir Chaudhary – had FIRs registered against them in opposition ruled states. In all the other cases, there has been no condemnation, criticism or even expressions of concern.

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This official silence has a bearing on the ‘press freedom index’ challenge the government is confronting because virtually all the global bodies surveying media freedom in different countries have made adverse note of the police harassment of journalists in recent weeks.

Apart from the growing attempt to criminalise reporting by filing cases – including under the anti-terrorism law in Kashmir and the National Security Act in Manipur – media bodies have noted that press freedom in India is also undermined by the rampant filing of civil and criminal defamation cases by politicians, government and business houses.

Also Read: Use of UAPA Against Journalists is Last Nail in Coffin for Press Freedom in Kashmir

During the coronavirus pandemic, a new threat has emerged – the misuse of the Epidemic Diseases Act,  Disaster Management Act, the law on sedition, besides various sections of the Indian Penal Code to penalise reporters for filing stories that show the government’s handling of the crisis in poor light. Then there is the use of government advertising by the Central and state governments as a pressure tactic on media houses to ensure favourable coverage and penalise criticism. The use of internet bans is a major problem. There is no system of official accreditation for digital media, and sections 66 and 67 of the Information Technology Act are routinely invoked by the police against not just reporters but also individuals on social media for reports or posts that criticise officials or politicians who have particularly thin skins. Finally, there are broad issues relating to the physical and economic security of journalists which the IMC would need to take up.

IMC to ‘understand parameters’ of RSF index

While Javadekar wants to “expose” the surveys in which India performs badly, his ministry’s approach – as noted in the March 27, 2020 office memorandum establishing an index monitoring cell (IMC) – is to study how RSF’s press freedom index works and understand the “parameters related to it, in order to arrive at actionable items”.

The note says the IMC would establish a “suitable monitoring mechanism in this regard” and keep all the related ministries and departments – and the Niti Aayog – informed about their performance. The note also says one of the “monitoring and communications mechanisms” the IMC can establish is “to frame [a] State/UT  level ranking on press freedom and related parameters and spur healthy competition among them.”

The IMC will be headed by the principal director general of the ministry’s Press and Information Bureau (PIB). Its other members will be ADG, press facilitation at the PIB, the ADG at the Registrar of Newspapers (RNI), the ADG at the Bureau of Outreach and Communication (BOC), the secretary, Press Council of India (PCI), director (information and publicity) at the I&B ministry, besides a nominee each from the Niti Aayog and the Ministry of External Affairs. A PIB official would serve as member secretary.

The composition of the index monitoring cell will also include “well known journalists having credible credentials”, to be nominated by the PCI.

Press Council sources told The Wire the two journalists nominated by the PCI are P. Sainath, founder editor of the not-for-profit website, the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), and Rajat Sharma, editor-in-chief of India TV.

The IMC will have its first meeting on May 14 through video conferencing due to the social distancing norms and the national lockdown.

Among other measures to be adopted for better ranking of India in RSF’s annual global index, the ministry has also envisaged “a micro-site” to be developed within the PIB website. It is aimed to be a “suitable platform for improved visibility and communication of steps taken by the government and other agencies for stakeholders across the world.”

The IMC, incidentally, is among several others formed in different ministries as part of the the Modi government’s decision to track the performance of India in “32 selected global indices.”

“Once the lockdown is lifted, there may be a meeting of the IMC at the National Media Centre in Delhi to decide further strategy,” PIB sources said. The services of “two expert consultants” would also be hired by PIB to assist the cell.

The monitoring cell would also be regularly in touch with the Paris-based RSF to inform them about “the progress and development” India has made in the parameters they test for the index.

A PCI source told The Wire, “The role of the senior journalists would also be important in understanding the parameters that global agencies look at which will help the ministry formulate an actionable strategy.”

In the 2020 Index, RSF has noted that though there were no reported cases of murder of journalists in India in 2019, as against six in 2018, “there have been constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.”

India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index has been on a constant decline since 2010. While in 2013 and 2014, it was listed at 140 among the 180 nations, it climbed to 136 in 2015 and 133 in 2016. However, since 2017, it has begun yet again to decline – from 136 to 138 in 2018, 140 in 2019, to arrive at 142 in 2020.