Sharp Downslide: India Slips 11 Ranks in Press Freedom Index, Now 161 of 180 Countries

The most worrying collapse for India is in the Security indicator category, where India’s rank is 172. This means, only eight countries rank worse than India out of 180 on this parameter.

New Delhi: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released the 21st edition of its World Press Freedom Index on Wednesday (May 3), and it came with bad news for India. India has slipped to the 161st rank in terms of press freedom out of 180 countries ranked – a while 11 ranks worse than 2022, when it stood at 150.

India thus finds itself among the 31 countries where RSF believes the situation for journalists is “very serious”.

In its opening remarks about why India has been classified this way, RSF states, “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 World Press Freedom Index comprises five variables, for which scores are computed and then countries ranked. The five sub-indicators are the Political indicator, Economic indicator, Legislative indicator, Social indicator and the Security indicator.

The most worrying collapse for India is in the Security indicator category, where India’s rank is 172. This means, only eight countries rank worse than India out of 180 on this parameter. So India is worse than all in terms of ensuring security of journalists in the world, other than China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Myanmar, in that order. Myanmar is at the bottom.

The security indicator “evaluates the ability to identify, gather and disseminate news and information in accordance with journalistic methods and ethics, without unnecessary risk of bodily harm, psychological or emotional distress, or professional harm resulting from, for example, loss of one’s job, confiscation of professional equipment, or ransacking of media installations.”

The RSF highlights several serious problems with the media landscape in India, one of which is the concentration of ownership:

“…the abundance of media outlets conceals tendencies toward the concentration of ownership, with only a handful of sprawling media companies at the national level, including the Times GroupHT Media LtdThe Hindu Group and Network18. Four dailies share three quarters of the readership in Hindi, the country’s leading language. The concentration is even more marked at the regional level for local language publications such as Kolkata’s Bengali-language Anandabazar Patrika, the Mumbai-based daily Lokmat, published in Marathi, and Malayala Manorama, distributed in southern India. This concentration of ownership in the print media can also be observed in the TV sector with major TV networks such as NDTV. The state-owned All India Radio (AIR) network owns all news radio stations.”

This is made worse by the fact that there are openly mutually beneficial relationships between these companies and the Modi government, it continues: “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. Similarly, the takeover of the NDTV channel at the end of 2022 by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also very close to Narendra Modi, signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media.”

India’s performance in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index as compared to 2022. Source: RSF

Legally too, there are several ways journalists are harassed by those in power – including through charges of sedition and criminal defamation, according to RSF. “Indian law is protective in theory but charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as “anti-national”,” the report notes.

There is a lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms, according to RSF. “For the most part, only Hindu men from upper castes hold senior positions in journalism or are media executives ­– a bias that is reflected in media content. For example, fewer than 15% of the participants in major evening talk shows are women.”

Even in terms of safety of journalists, India is performing poorly RSF notes: “With an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media.” The report specifically talks about the targeted harassment of women journalists online and the ongoing police interference in how the press is treated in Kashmir.

Even within South Asia, India is among the worst performs in the index. While Bangladesh comes off slightly worse, at the 163rd rank, Pakistan is several ranks ahead of India at 150th. Even Afghanistan, where the Taliban government is known to be no friend to independent journalists, has done better, with a rank of 152. Bhutan is at 90 and Sri Lanka at 135.