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New Delhi: India’s press freedom ranking has fallen from 133 out of 180 countries in 2016 to 150 in 2021, according to Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, which published its 2022 World Press Freedom Index on May 3.
The World Press Freedom Index highlights the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens have in each country, and the government’s efforts to respect such freedom.
Last year, India was listed under countries considered “bad” for journalism and was listed among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. India’s rank last year was 142.
“The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in “the world’s largest democracy”, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right,” the 2022 report said.
It further said, “Originally a product of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive but things changed radically in the mid-2010s, when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party, the BJP, and the big families dominating the media. The prime example is undoubtedly the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s, who owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians.”
It also highlighted how “under the guise of combatting COVID-19, the government and its supporters waged a guerrilla war of lawsuits against media outlets whose coverage of the pandemic contradicted official statements”. The Wire had reported in June 2020, citing various media reports, that 55 journalists were arrested, booked and threatened for reporting on COVID-19.
It further spoke about the harassment faced by Indian journalists who are too critical of the government. According to the report, currently, 13 journalists are behind bars and one journalist was killed since January 1.
Rohit Kumar Biswal, a reporter and photographer for the Odia-language newspaper Dharitri, was killed instantly when an IED exploded on 5 February near Karlakhunta bridge in Kalahandi district, about 400 km west of Bhubaneswar, the state capital.
According to IndiaSpend, internet shutdowns and the spread of misinformation have also contributed to India’s falling rank in the press freedom index in the last five years.
On safety of journalists, the RSF report said, “Terrifying coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder are conducted on social media, campaigns that are often even more violent when they target women journalists, whose personal data may be posted online as an additional incitement to violence. The situation is also still very worrisome in Kashmir, where reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries, with some being subjected to so-called “provisional” detention for several years.”
On January 1, 2022, ‘Bulli Bai’, an app hosted on Github, had listed several Indian Muslim women, including journalists, for “auction” with their photographs doctored and sourced without their permission. In 2021, a similar app called ‘Sulli Deals‘, which was also hosted on Github, had listed hundreds of Muslim women for “auction”. ‘Bulli/Sulli’ are Islamophobic slurs referring to Muslim women, alterations of the term ‘Mulli’ often used by the right wing to troll Muslim women.
Separately, an investigation by The Wire had revealed how ‘Tek Fog’, a sophisticated app used by political operatives affiliated with the BJP to drive propaganda at scale in India, targetted women journalists, especially those whose work or posts run counter to the BJP’s official narrative.
The RSF report further pointed out how the government has been exploiting the absence of an “airtight border between business and editorial policy”.
“Despite often huge stock market valuations, media outlets largely depend on advertising contracts with local and regional governments. In the absence of an airtight border between business and editorial policy, media executives often see the latter as just a variable to be adjusted according to business needs. At the national level, the central government has seen that it can exploit this to impose its own narrative, and is now spending more than Rs 130 billion (5 billion euros) a year on ads in the print and online media alone.”
Therefore, the old Indian model of a pluralist press is being seriously challenged by a combination of harassment and influence, it said.