Copy-Paste Denials Won't Fix the Indian Issues Global Indices Are Highlighting

The same denial is recycled time and again when the government is talking about India's fall in the World Press Freedom Index rankings.

The steep fall in India’s ranking in the 2023 edition of the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) and stony silence with which the government met it, is symptomatic of a deep-rooted malaise that weighs heavily on Indian polity. The report demonstrates for the nth time that the government does not believe in the necessity to practise what it preaches.

The latest report released last week, prepared by the not-for-profit professional organisation Reporters Without Borders, showed India slipping 11 places to the 161st rank, out of 180 evaluated nations.

This uncaring silence of the government on a critical indicator of the country’s democratic health cannot but be juxtaposed with the parroting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion of India being the “mother of democracy” by all and sundry in the present regime.

This claim is not just founded on untruth, but also propagates the questionable theory that a nation’s characteristics at the time of its ‘origin’ (a subjective marker and dependent on how history is read) remains inalterable despite changing nature and political belief and systems of regimes over different time periods.

If the RSF report highlights one facet of the crisis that India faces, its summary rejection by the government only accentuates it.

The year-by-year position of various countries in the WPFI is globally considered a pointer to the changing extent of media controls and perils faced by journalists not aligned with the government.

Since its launch in 2002, the RSF report’s judgement and rankings are based on five separate parameters: political context, legal framework, economic context, socio-cultural context and safety or security.

Most worrisome is the fact of these five parametres, India’s ranking as per the political indicator is 169, while according to the security indicator, it is 172 – just eight ranks below the last in the list on this count, Myanmar. India truly has role models to look up to!

From its ranking of 80 in 2002 in an index in which the state of media’s health was evaluated in 139 countries, India has slipped 81 positions to its present ranking of 161 in an index that now appraises the situation in 180 nations.

The slide into the abyss has taken place in barely two decades at a time when democratic practices and integrity of state institutions also eroded considerably.

Also read: When Journalists Are Targets, We All Suffer

More ominously, in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, Indian ranking in the WPFI (by that time a total of 180 countries – the same as currently – were being assessed) stood at 140. This foregrounds the steep decline of press freedom under Modi’s watch although the regime’s leaders do not miss a single opportunity to singing paeans to India’s tradition of an independent media.

Not insignificantly, the single-biggest ‘fall’ of India on the WPFI was between 2002 and 2003 when it slid from the 80th position to the 128th position.

This is the same period when momentous events took place in quick succession – the December 13, 2001 attack on Indian Parliament, the resulting military brinkmanship directed at Pakistan and of course, Godhra carnage and the retaliatory 2002 Gujarat riots.

Unsurprisingly, the Indian State utilised the ruse of these developments to tighten controls over the Indian media. Paradoxically, the sharp fall in India’s ranking on the Index coincided with the beginning of 24×7 news coverage in the country with the launch of a slew of news channels in 2002-03.

Political events, in fact, had a direct correlation to India’s position: Within a year after the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, between 2004 and 2005, India’s ranking improved from 120 in 2004 to 106 in 2005 and 105 a year later.

But after the United Progressive Alliance government established electoral dominance and the BJP languished, India’s ranking began slipping to 140 in 2014 when the Congress-led alliance was voted out decisively.

This demonstrates, as in regards to democratic practices, that press remains comparatively freer when a genuinely coalition government is at the helm of affairs, as opposed to the situation since 2014 when the regime is multi-party only in name.

This government’s vanity and unconcern been established over the past nine years. Despite Modi’s conscious bid to emerge as Vishwaguru, the government has taken no steps to adhere to norms and practices, considered essential by the global liberal community.

Not only has the government made no efforts to reduce its stranglehold on mainstream media, but it continues targeting individual journalists, initiates investigations against media organisation and files cases to create examples for others in the profession.

Additionally, the government prepared a stock response after 2017-18 when India’s ranking slipped from 138 to 150 last year, and 161 now.

Using very elementary search methods on the internet, this writer found a common sentence in the government’s response to questions in Parliament over WPFI reports in 2021 and 2022. In different sessions, separately in both the Houses, the same words were used by the Union minister for information and Broadcasting, Anurag Thakur, stating the reason why the government rejected the RSF reports, its findings and the rankings.

A common sentence – “The government does not subscribe to its views and country rankings and does not agree to the conclusions drawn by this organisation…” – can be found in news reports dated December 2021February 2022 and July 2022.

Undoubtedly, ‘Control C’ and ‘Control V’ are the two most-preferred combinations on the keyboard of any government, either lazy or which believes in the oft-quoted Joseph Goebbels hypothesis – an untruth repeated ceaselessly, eventually is believed as the truth.

The genesis of the government’s response to questions by lawmakers in Parliament lies in the I&B ministry’s decision in 2020 to establish an Index Monitoring Cell to examine either ways to improve India’s global image, taking a beating due to the progressively poor ranking, or ways by which the government could dismiss these as incorrect and faulty.

Almost simultaneously, the NITI Aayog tasked a consultant with the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office (DMEO), an “attached office” of the Aayog, to prepare a response paper in the wake of the 2020 WPFI, when India ranked 142.

The consultant took a “closer look” at the methodology and functioning of the index. The paper noted that several countries “raised concerns with both the WPFI criteria, methodology and also about RSF’s perceived biases, lack of objectivity in ranking and lack of transparency.”

It did not specify the countries and commentators who flagged these concerns. It however, quoted an October 2005 speech of Goh Chok Tong, former prime minister of Singapore, as stating that the WPFI was a “subjective measure computed through the prism of western liberals.”

This inclusion stood out for two reasons: One, Singapore is not particularly known for its free press. Two, this allegation was levelled barely three years after RSF started the WPFI and in the past 15 years considerable improvements would have been made in methodology, questionnaire and survey.

Despite abundance of data (for instance here), the consultant wrote; “credible sources are not available for quantitative data on abuse and violence against journalists.”

The NITI Aayog paper also revealed its daftness by pointing out that the “list of respondents” was not provided in the report. It is common knowledge that on sensitive issues, especially on matters involving queries on use of state power, respondents are promised anonymity for obvious reasons.

The NITI Aayog paper concluded that “further engagement by the Government with the RSF may yield only marginal returns and hence, should be avoided.”

In the meanwhile, the aforesaid committee appointed by the I&B ministry also stated that “the media is doing well and that India’s poor score – which it says is ‘not in line with the ground situation’ – is the product of ‘western bias’.”

However, the report was adopted by the 15-member committee after a key member, senior journalist P. Sainath, submitted observations contrary to the report’s conclusions.

Not merely the WPFI, but the government’s responses in Parliament on several other global socio-economic and political indices that ranked India poorly has been a mix of “denials to disallowing discussion on questions raised by parliamentarians.

These indices that were rejected as being questionable include the Global Hunger Index, Corruption Perception Index, Global Pension Index, V-Dem’s ‘Democracy Report’ and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Democracy Index’.

Quite clearly, the government is driven by the narrative of sab changa hai (everything’s fine), at least till the time there is no consistent and widespread questioning from below.

An NCR-based author and journalist, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.