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Precipitous Fall in Press Freedom

The fall is not only about silencing the press but also due to the amplification of governmental propaganda.

Seema Chishti writes: India’s rank has seen a dramatic fall in the World Press Freedom Index maintained by the media watchdog, the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF). The decline has been precipitous but has been continual for the past three years. The truth about Indian media being successfully coerced and persuaded to parrot the governmental tune has destroyed the myth of post-Emergency immunity that the big media had been proud to flaunt in the world till eight years ago. Now, India is in the bottom 30 worst nations out of 180. It is the worst record among countries that call themselves a demo¬cracy. In terms of the numbers, the RSF has changed the methodology, using a mix of qualitative and quantitative data and five broad subheads: political context, economic context, legal framework, security, and sociocultural context. India’s rank is somewhat salvaged by its score on the legal framework and partly on its score on sociocultural metric. Both these factors predate the present regime, which has done nothing to bolster press freedom and everything to undermine it. As far as the use of the National Security Act, sedition law (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code), and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against journalists go, these are unprecedented times. The union government has helped the analysis on press unfreedom in India by using Kashmir as a Petri dish for early experimentation of tools, and subsequently deployed widely. Recently, the editor of Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, along with two other colleagues from the erstwhile state, have been arrested for doing journalism. The crimes included the act of reporting truths or views that journalists in any place—identifying as a democracy—are entitled and in fact obligated to do so. The routine follows, inflicting the “process” on journalists, keeping them in jail, and then rearresting them on separate charges, involving more jail time. The Azhimukham journalist from Kerala, Siddique Kappan, is in jail for reasons that can, again, only be described as journalism. Ironically, when India ranked 150, he was marking his 575th day in jail. Fourteen different ways have been observed in which press freedom is being curtailed, a comprehensive range of actions—each possibly picked out from older playbooks—but their simultaneous deployment having an impact, which is of nuclear proportions and has the effect of just choking the media. This includes the new laws to censor—by executive fiat—digital news content via the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the intimidation of social media intermediaries to delete content the gov¬ernment (and the ruling party) disapproves of, the banning of television stations on undisclosed national security grounds, the use of official agencies to harass media houses and journalists in the name of “economic offences,” the unprecedented use of internet blackouts, and favouritism and vindictiveness in the allocation of government advertising. As the Institute of Perception Studies’ Rate The Debate has revealed, it is not about silencing the press alone. What is being done is to amplify governmental points of view and propaganda by acts of commission too. Primetime television never gave more than 10% of its time to the steep rise in fuel price in March–April. This was to minimise the negative perception about the union government, with its main job being to divert and distract, in order to shield the government from negative sentiments. Indira Gandhi’s Emergency had a censorship in place, but to see cheerleaders in the private sector tom-tom the government’s point of view distorts the information space beyond repair. The role of keeping government accountable was something the media helped undertake before 2014. In fact, the current regime has seen a dramatic fall in the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) reports, a 75% drop over the last five years. From 55 reports in 2015, it was down to 14 in 2020. There were no defence audits in 2021 and just three railway audits. In terms of the number of CAG reports placed in Parliament, Narendra Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh placed all on the floor. Not so with the current regime as 33 reports have not been made public. But one will not be able to tell even if they watched television news or read the largest circulating dailies. The absence of press freedom is having a more dangerous impact on India’s democracy. It is a persuasive case that Amartya Sen makes: that accountability and democracy ensures no famines. But transposing this principle to the ruin that COVID-19 left behind puts a big question mark over whether India remains a democracy in the full sense or not. Analysts rightly point out that the biggest institutional enforcer of accountability in the case of a public health crisis like this has to be the media. It is the abject failure of the media that allows the ruling regime to not only dodge the mirror that the World Health Organization numbers have shown the government on COVID-19 deaths being 10 times the official number but then it also tom-toms the government’s COVID-19 management as a success story. All in all, snuffing out press freedom is injurious to a nation’s health.

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Updated On : 28th May, 2022
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