Mumbai: A committee set up by the Narendra Modi government last year to suggest ways of India improving its ranking in the World Press Freedom Index has concluded 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”.
But in a nod to the growing incidence of criminal cases being filed against reporters and editors across the country – cases that are widely seen as an attack on media freedom – the committee’s draft report has also asked the government to consider making it mandatory for the police to secure the consent of the Press Council of India (PCI) before “filing an FIR against a media for her/his publication of a news article, cartoon, opinion or photograph”. Another key recommendation is the decriminalising of defamation. India is one of the few democracies to retain the offence of criminal defamation on the statute books.
In addition, it recommends that the PCI be recast as the ‘Media Council of India’ to cover “the entire gamut of media, i.e., newspapers and periodicals in print or other form, e-newspapers, news portals, social media and any other platform of news dissemination besides electronic media.” This recommendation is at variance with the government’s controversial new policy, announced last month, of introducing a sweeping new regulatory regime for digital news.
The Wire has learned that at least one member of the 15-strong committee, the journalist P. Sainath, has submitted a number of critical observations on the draft, declaring that the document circulated by the chairman “falls far short” of what was meant to be the principal task of the panel – to review and discuss proposals to improve media freedom in India.
“The first thing the report needs to clearly state,” his note says, is “that we recognise the existence of a serious crisis in freedom of expression in the country (without which there would have been no need for this committee) – and which has reached the proportions of an undeclared emergency for the media, particularly for independent-minded journalists.”
The Wire has obtained a copy of the 42-page draft official report and Sainath’s scathing observations on it, which run to 46 pages and comprise a 12-page note with three appendices attached as evidence.
Coming in the wake of the new IT rules for digital news media and the leak of a Group of Ministers report on communication, which speaks of tracking and blacklisting journalists critical of the government and even ‘neutralising’ them, the official committee’s sanguine tone – with phrases like “the work culture in the Government of India involves transparency as the norm” – is likely to heighten rather than dampen global concerns about the state of the press in the country.
Genesis of panel
In 2020, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked India 142nd among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index 2020. India’s rank has fallen steadily over the past decade. And for a country that obsessively compares itself with its western neighbour, it is now merely three places ahead of Pakistan, which stands at 145. In 2006, India’s rank was 106.
Taking note of the RSF report, the Narendra Modi government set up a committee – called the ‘Index Monitoring Cell’ (IMC) – to work on “improving India’s ranking on the freedom of press index”.
The 15-member IMC is chaired by Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, principal director general of the Central government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB), and includes 10 other government employees or appointees. Apart from Sainath, the committee also includes three other journalists, Rajat Sharma, Jagdish Upasane and Hitesh Shankar. Originally, the names of Sharma and Sainath were suggested by the Press Council of India.
Ten months after its formation in May 2020, the IMC has prepared a report in four chapters and made a set of recommendations. But instead of focussing on the problems plaguing the Indian media – which includes government pressure of various kinds – the official draft says the country’s poor ranking is the product of “western bias” and attempts to rebut the observations commonly made about the parlous state of press freedom in India.
Key challenges to media ignored
During the four meetings held online between IMC members – there were also apparently several held by sub-committees or sub-groups – many pertinent issues were raised relating to press freedom, including the right to dissent, protection against motivated legal proceedings, internet shutdowns and the special problems faced by Kashmiri journalists. However, none of these have been incorporated into the draft report. In protest, Sainath prepared a separate document and has asked the IMC to add it separately to the official report.
Even as the IMC ponders finalisation of its report, India has been downgraded in the Freedom House rankings from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free.’
In his separate comments, akin to a dissent note, Sainath states that the draft report by the committee has “failed to get anywhere close to these objectives”. “Perhaps the most unacceptable aspects are: a) there is no description, no recounting or measuring of the situation on the ground in relation to press freedom and, b) there is not a single mention of ‘accountability’ of the State and governments or any level of authorities,” he writes. He further says that there is no mention of accountability in relation to corporate media owners either – though the disturbing trend of sackings, retrenchments and forced ‘voluntary’ resignations did find mention in committee meetings.
While the committee had circulated the report as a “draft version”, curiously, the cover page does not say ‘draft’ – suggesting this could be their final one.
India’s press has been facing a tumultuous time with the government overtly exerting its power on both journalists and editors. Many have been booked under stringent laws in frivolous and fake cases. (An appendix to the dissent note enumerates as many as 52 laws that relate to the media in this country – the list prepared by a sub-group of the IMC). Several government bodies have engaged in peddling baseless stories and questioned the credibility of those seeking accountability from the government. Kashmir, among all regions, is the worst impacted. The draft report, however, speaks of how much “positive work” is done to protect journalists in the valley. In the section discussing the situation of media in Kashmir, the draft report says,
“The complex security situation of Jammu & Kashmir makes it unique with regard to press freedom. The security personnel make tireless efforts to ensure the physical security of journalists and the wider public from foreign-bred terrorist elements in the region. The measures taken in this regard often lead to restricted permissions for travel and frequent internet shutdowns, which are portrayed in the western media as violation of press freedom.”
To this, Sainath’s note asks, “Does that include the safety of Kashmiri journalists? Or are they all “foreign-bred terrorist elements”?” The experiences of journalists in J&K are so widely known – yet completely absent from the report’s appreciation of the ‘ground situation’, he points out. “And internet shutdowns are not just portrayed as violations of press freedom in the western media. They are very grave violations with severe consequences in social, economic, political and human rights spheres,” he further adds. He calls the internet shutdown a “very feudal form of collective punishment – punishing an entire region, once a state, for things claimed to be the doings of a handful of foreign-bred terrorists”.
The committee, formed months after the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K, only speaks of the region in relation to lists in languages and publications. “Is this the ground reality we perceive in Kashmir?” he asks.
Cases against providers of ‘essential service’
In March last year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown in the country, he had also listed media among “essential services”. But the draft report, the dissenting note points out, does not seem anywhere to contextualise “the ironic and astonishing rise” in attacks on journalists that comes after their work was declared an essential service by the prime minister.
This is particularly disturbing as since the lockdown, the criminalisation of journalists has risen exponentially. An appendix to the note cites at least 22 instances where journalists were arrested, served notices in nine other instances and FIRs registered in 22 other cases.
His dissenting note says that, when he carried out a search for keywords in the draft report, the words “sedition”, “censorship” and “FIRs”, do not appear a single time in description of that ground situation. ‘Sedition’, he points out, appears once “in a convoluted quote from late communications scholar Wilbur Schramm”. Even the word ‘censorship’ – at the heart of the debate over freedom – only appears in a single line that actually denies its prevalence in India, he says. “There is no pre- or post-censorship on any news report in India, subject to the reasonable restrictions provided on free speech provided in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution,” the report claims.
In response to the missing key aspects in the report, Sainath made a list of those important words. He adds dissent/right to dissent, false pretences, sedition charges, sacking of journalists under government pressure, intimidation by government agencies, arbitrary action against journalists, internet shutdowns among others. None of these words figure anywhere in the draft report, he observes.
Sacking, retrenchment of journalists
The note also expresses his concerns over the sacking, retrenchment and forced ‘voluntary’ resignations carried out by media houses under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic. These concerns, however, find no mention in the report, he said. By the time the committee held its first meeting, over 1,000 journalists had already been laid off, his note says. Some of them were by the wealthiest, most cash-rich media houses in the country. That number, he estimates, has long since crossed 1,500. “We do not in our report raise the question of why the media owners can get away with this after the prime minister declared journalists and media to be an essential service 11 months ago,” he points out.
Typically, when a body like the Press Council asks media houses about retrenchments, their standard reply is that the issue doesn’t pertain to the freedom of press, and that it falls under the Industrial Disputes Act, and is thus outside the purview of bodies like the PCI and is none of their business. “This is an obnoxious argument – that destruction of journalists’ livelihoods, the complete loss of security which accompanies that has no bearing on their freedom of expression, on press and media freedom in general,” Sainath observes.
‘Drop cases against journalists, free Siddique Kappan’
He emphasises the need to drop all the FIRs filed against journalists this past year or more. “Release all journalists incarcerated on outrageous charges – like Siddique Kappan under the UAPA,” he notes. He also seeks a clear advisory to the police and bureaucracy not to victimise any citizen under outlandish provisions of laws, some of which were formulated in British times to crush Indian freedoms of both press and citizenry. “The government also needs to lay in parliament all data on the FIRs and arrests besides declaring itself committed to freedom of the press and that it will ensure no further excesses shall happen,” he suggests.
On a similar note, he also suggests that a legal defence body for journalists be constituted to fight against false cases foisted on them. He says those media houses wilfully scuttling the wage board’s recommendations – recommendations already supported by the courts – must be strongly penalised.
Taking note of another recommendation in the chairman’s report, Sainath writes, “Regular engagement with international media ranking agencies.” Our job is to improve press freedom in India, not to carry out public relations exercises (like is done with the Ease of Business Index, or with credit rating agencies etc.) with ‘international media ranking agencies’.”
IMC makes 13 recommendations
Apart from decriminalising defamation, creating a Media Council of India and amending the law to make its approval mandatory for FIRs against the media, the committee official draft report’s 13 recommendations make a case for the legal and financial security for journalists, their upskilling, widening the ambit of accreditation, and developing an “India specific Index” for measuring press freedom in the country.
“A review of various archaic and colonial laws impacting press freedom in India may be considered,” the committee states, in one of the recommendations.
The committee has also suggested that the Majithia Wage board recommendations, made to the labour ministry with regard to remuneration for journalists, should be considered.
It wants the ministry to regularly engage with international media
ranking agencies to “further understand the various aspects related to methodology of the Press Freedom Index, present the correct factual position of
the status of press freedom in India and convey, to the organization, the unique
socio-cultural complexities of India and the national security imperative in light of
internal and external threats”.
Summary of proposals
1. Definition of a journalist and journalism practice: “Setting and following the definition of a journalist that merges the two viewpoints – the legal and the ethical – is recommended to ensure that the best interests of the public and of the newsroom are served.”
2. Quantitative tool to measure media pluralism in India: “To measure media pluralism in India and to identify areas of concern, a scale with indicators is recommended.”
3. Establishment of Media Council of India: “…the need for a Media Council of India is felt for the entire gamut of media, i.e., newspapers and periodicals in print or other form, e-newspapers, news portals, social media and any other platform of news dissemination besides electronic media. In 2019, the PCI had also recommended enacting a single legislation to include all the aforesaid media in line of the Press Council Act 1978.”
4. Legal and Administrative Security for Journalists: “consider decriminalisation of the offence of defamation; consider a review various archaic and colonial laws impacting press freedom in India; consent of the Press Council of India may be made mandatory for filing an FIR against a media; time-bound investigation and filing of chargesheet by police authorities may be made mandatory in matters related to journalistic expression.”
5. Financial Security of Journalists: “Take the draft ‘Journalists Welfare Fund Act’, proposed by the Press Council of India in 2015, forward; consider enacting a single legislation/scheme for the welfare of journalists; consider implementation of Majithia Wage Board recommendations.”
6. Physical safety of Journalists: “Provision of bullet-proof identifiable jackets, helmets, etc. wherever required. The concerned organization should take responsibility for those journalists who are deployed to cover disturbed or conflict regions; Insurance schemes for media persons working in life-threatening circumstances; Access to welfare measures and schemes announced by Union and State Governments.”
7. Engagement with Industry Representatives and Media Associations: organise ‘outreach’ with media houses and Media Associations., consider organizing an annual Indian media conclave
8. Re-skilling and upskilling of journalists: Online capacity building courses may be offered for journalists; frequent workshops and other short-duration programmes would aid in capacity building of the industry.
9. Coordination with other line Ministries/Departments: I&B ministry may coordinate with law ministry on legal amendments; with home ministry regarding sensitisation of police; with the Ministry of External Affairs regarding engagement with international ranking agencies and obtaining feedback from foreign journalists in India; with Ministry of Labour on implementation of Majithia Wage Board recommendations across the country.
10. Widening the ambit of accreditation: Compile a complete list of working journalists in the field throughout the country; benefits associated with accreditation may be extended to journalists working in smaller organizations in even Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities and towns.
11. Engagement with International Media Ranking agencies: “establish a regular engagement with international media ranking agencies to … present the correct factual position of the status of press freedom in India and convey… the unique socio-cultural complexities of India and the national security imperative in light of internal and external threats.”
12. Communication Strategy: Implement three-pronged communication strategy related to the Press Freedom Index may be implemented by the Ministry featuring “engagement with Industry Representatives and Media Associations, Positive Aspects with regard to Press Freedom in India at national and global level: publicizing reform actions taken towards enhancing press freedom in India”.
13. Developing an India specific Index: NITI Aayog has suggested creating certain indices to promote competition amongst the States… more discussion is required for deciding whether such indices for ranking of states would achieve the desired goal.
You can read the full report and Sainath’s note below.