IPI’s cross-border project combats press freedom violations in South Asia

In Nepal, despite threats of COVID-19 infection and declining wages, journalists are working tirelessly on the ground to cover the pandemic.

When reporter Kailash Joshi was infected with COVID-19, he continued to do his job, stalking stories for two media outlets while isolating himself at home. He is just one of the dedicated journalists in Nepal working around the clock to cover the pandemic, even in the face of risks to their own health and limited resources.

Joshi’s story, originally published by the Nepalese newspaper Nagarik on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, was able to reach a wider audience thanks to a new project with the International Institute of press (IPI), a Vienna-based global network dedicated to the protection of press freedoms.

Launched in December 2020, the project, titled “Covering and Investigating Attacks on Journalists in South Asia: Cross-Border Cooperation,” collaborates with IPI members in five news outlets across South Asia, including The Daily Star in Bangladesh, The Week in India, Dawn in Pakistan, as well as Nagarik and Republica in Nepal.

“The project raises awareness of the dangers journalists face in carrying out their work and the failure of state institutions to create an environment in which the press can operate independently and without fear of reprisal,” VOA told VOA Barbara Trionfi, Director of the IPI.

Each newspaper documents threats against journalists and press freedom violations through articles which are then shared and republished in partner media.

The project, which receives partial funding from UNESCO’s Global Media Fund, functions both as a resource for documentation and advocacy.

An Indian vendor arranges newspapers in Nepal at a newsstand in Siliguri on March 13, 2018.

“IPI leads the advocacy efforts, which are reinforced by the visibility that the media can offer,” explained Trionfi. “At the same time, the IPI’s advocacy is successful because it is based on precise facts gathered [investigative] journalists in each country.

For journalists, the IPI project offers a wider readership and an opportunity to connect with journalists facing similar obstacles in other countries.

“The IPI project has connected journalists and raised their awareness of press freedom violations in neighboring countries,” VS Jayaschandran, editor-in-chief of Indian news magazine The Week, told VOA in an interview. by email.

“My reporters have felt professional satisfaction at having been published in newspapers abroad,” Jayaschandran said.

Connection with newspapers abroad is an important part of the IPI project.

“The cross-border aspect of the project is particularly important and it highlights the similarities and shared values ​​between freelance journalists and editors from the four countries,” Trionfi told VOA.

Threats to press freedom in South Asia

“South Asia remains one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism, with frequent attacks on the press and very high levels of impunity for crimes against the media,” Trionfi said.

Ravi Prasad, IPI’s director of advocacy, said in an email interview with VOA that growing authoritarianism and intolerance of media criticism are two major concerns for press freedom in South Asia.

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 Global Press Freedom Index (RSF), which ranks countries on a scale of 1 to 180 with 1 being the freest, found independent journalism under attack in Bangladesh, Nepal and in Sri Lanka. And in Pakistan, ranked 145, the media are largely under the control of the Pakistani military.

In India, ranked 142 on the RSF scale, after the 2019 elections brought more power to Prime Minister Modi’s party, the overall state of press freedom in the country has worsened. Journalists are often the target of social media campaigns that threaten the press with violence. Legal reprisals are also used as a means of censorship.

In this photo taken on April 8, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives the second dose of the Covaxin COVID-19 vaccine at AIIMS hospital in New Delhi.

In this photo taken on April 8, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives the second dose of the Covaxin COVID-19 vaccine at AIIMS hospital in New Delhi.

“The government of President Modi has become more and more intolerant [of] critical opinions and has passed various laws to criminalize independent and critical journalism, ”Trionfi told VOA.

Jayaschandran claims that laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) also undermine press freedom in India.

The AFSPA empowers the armed forces in “disturbed areas” and, among other things, allows the military to stop and search without a warrant and open fire on citizens in some cases. The law has been criticized by Human Rights Watch as “a tool of state abuse.”

India’s Illegal Activities (Prevention) Act has also been used to block free speech, Jayaschandran said.

Similar laws have been used across South Asia to target the press.

“South Asian countries imitate India in terms of laws and regulations, and often go beyond those laws to enact draconian laws,” Prasad told VOA.

In Bangladesh, a 2018 digital security law, which threatens a maximum life sentence, targets journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic, Prasad said.

Activists shout slogans during a protest against the digital security law in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 3, 2021.

Activists shout slogans during a protest against the digital security law in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 3, 2021.

While the pandemic has posed more challenges for journalists, including financial strains for newsrooms and threats of government censorship, the crisis has also highlighted the importance of a free press.

“As governments try to control the narrative of the health crisis by restricting free speech and freedom of opinion, and by bringing complaints against journalists, there is certainly an increased conversation about press freedom and the safety of journalists in South Asia, “said Prasad. VOA.

Prasad said the articles published as part of the IPI project have strengthened the voice of journalists and “in the long term, they are bound to have an impact on the policies and practices of these countries.”

Jayaschandran echoed a similar hope that papers published under the IPI project could “convince governments to be more responsive and empathetic.”

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