There are several challenges to the freedom of the media in India, including threats of violence from vested interests and pressure from political parties, experts have said. They have called for greater involvement of civil society in cases pertaining to journalists. The World Press Freedom Day celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, and is an occasion to assess the state of press freedom throughout the world. It is observed on the anniversary of Declaration of Windhoek — a statement of free press principles put together by newspaper journalists in Africa during a Unesco seminar held in the Namibian city in 1991.

Vulnerable journalists 

Sevanti Ninan, Editor, The Hoot, a website which undertakes research pertaining to the media to strengthen its independence, said there has been a decline in press freedom in the last few years.

“The greater vulnerability is for journalists in districts and small towns. One reason for this that many of them are now using RTI to investigate local scams and they pose a threat to the powerful in government and in politics,” Ninan told IANS.

The pen is mightier than the sword. ReutersThe pen is mightier than the sword. Reuters

The pen is mightier than the sword. Reuters

She cited instances of death of three journalists covering investigative stories over the last year and said there should be a law guaranteeing press freedom, which is different from free speech.

She said committees comprising journalists and civil society members should be kept informed of police action against journalists.

Ninan said the media community in India has been remiss in protecting its counterparts in the regional press. “There is no pressure group at the national level which maintains pressure on the central and state governments in cases regarding journalists. The Editors Guild and other bodies are not really proactive in this regard. The Press Council publishes reports, but they have no impact,” she said.

Ninan said that it states like Chhattisgarh, where the state is battling Maoists, journalists who try to report on incidents involving the ultras were becoming victims of state oppression.

“There have been four arrests of journalists in Chhattisgarh since July 2015,” Ninan said.

Defamation and lawsuits 

Ninan said the other issue is defamation. “The state government of Tamil Nadu is very active in filing defamation cases against journalists. There have been several already this year,” she said.

Ninan said threats to editorial independence “come from proprietors and advertisers among others” while physical threats come from a variety of sources including the state police.

Senior journalist and political commentator S Nihal Singh said the political atmosphere was not very conducive to freedom of press.

“There are the usual suspects in terms of the bureaucracy being overzealous on occasions. That is one danger and the other is that the whole climate is not really conducive to press freedom. Because, if you narrow down the national ideal to things like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and other things in a similar vein, you are constricting the room for free opinion,” he said.

Nihal Singh said “There is a greater amount of self-censorship in India today than before the BJP came to power.”

“In the current instance, it is not so much what you do but what you imply. So in overall terms I think, the outlook is not so bright,” he said.

Nihal Singh also said that media was not writing as forthrightly as it normally does or it can do. “Because if you feel these are vindictive characters in power, you would want to be on the safe side. (There is) that impulse,” he said, adding that journalists themselves have “to pull up their socks because there is no substitute for journalists standing up.”

Senior journalist and political commentator Kuldip Nayar said the terms of employment of journalists have changed and this “does not allow journalists to be free”. The “sword of the contract system hangs over the head of journalists,” he said.

Nayar said there were attempts to politicise the news and evils such as “paid news” had cropped up. He said journalists should make use of tools of such as RTI and face the challenges boldly.

AS Narang, who taught political science at IGNOU, said civil society should be more vocal in taking up cases of journalists who face any form of state pressure.

Oligarchs, Press freedom index 

A leading journalism advocacy group says media freedom experienced a sharp decline around the world over the past year, citing increasing government restrictions in places like Turkey, Poland, Tajikistan, and Egypt.

In its 2016 World Press Freedom Index released on 20 April, Reporters Without Borders said that there had been a “deep and disturbing” decline in freedom of information in many places around the world. The organisation, also known as Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), said independent media was also increasingly at risk from “religious ideologies” as well as “large-scale propaganda machines”. “Throughout the world, ‘oligarchs’ are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressure already coming from governments,” the Paris-based group said.

The media in India continues to be under stress as the country figures low at 133 out of 180 nations in the latest press freedom index, an international watchdog said on Wednesday, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being “indifferent” to threats against scribes.

The damning report also painted a sad picture of the world media freedom that has suffered a “deep and disturbing decline” due to pressure from “governments, ideologies and private-sector interests”.

About India, the 2016 report said that journalists and bloggers are attacked and “anathematised by various religious groups that are quick to take offence”, referring to growing right wing extremism in the country. “At the same time, it is hard for journalists to cover regions such as Kashmir that are regarded as sensitive by the government.” The report alleged that “Modi seems indifferent to these threats and problems, and there is no mechanism for protecting journalists”. “Instead, in a desire to increase control of media coverage, Modi envisages opening a journalism university run by former propaganda ministry officials,” the report said.

with inputs from IANS


The vulnerable watchdog: On World Press Freedom Day, here’s a look at media independence