Muzzle the press! India’s press freedom ranking leaves a lot to be desired

May 3 is celebrated as World Press Freedom Day. The General Assembly of the United Nations approved it in 1993 following a recommendation by the General Conference of UNESCO held two years earlier. Every year around this time, the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), also known as Reporters Without Borders, an advisory NGO to the UN, publishes a report on the relative freedom of the press in different countries.

Each country is assessed using five contextual indicators: political context, legal framework, economic context, socio-cultural context and security. The 2022 report has just come out and it is not quite acceptable for India, placed that we are in 150th position among the 180 countries assessed.

Mainstream Indian media that should have highlighted this report either ignored it or gave it little coverage. It is indeed disconcerting. Why do they hesitate to take advantage of this windfall? Their silence is deafening. There is also no response from the government at this time. It’s even more confusing. So is it a non-event, something inconsequential? Not at all, to be honest.

Let’s look at the finer aspects of the report to make sense of it. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and Finland occupy the positions 1 to 5 respectively. The United States is placed at 42 while the United Kingdom is placed at 24. The countries ranked lower than the India are Russia (155), Pakistan (157), Bangladesh (162), China (175) and Myanmar (176) and the lowest position, which is 180, goes to North Korea.

The RSF report from previous years showed a similar trend for the countries listed above. In other words, there are entrenched contexts that make press freedom essentially operational in some countries while in others it is circumscribed by various factors. Those of lower rank among the nations report a certain alarm that deserves our attention.

It is interesting to note that most of the countries that have a good track record are democracies. But surprisingly, press freedom in some democracies is questionable. It is necessary to explore the reasons for such a dismal record, because freedom of the press should be an integral part of democracy. This surely indicates serious shortcomings in the functioning of a democracy.

By definition, a functioning democracy presupposes certain fundamental freedoms. This is exactly why they are democracies. Otherwise, they will not be named as such. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are closely linked. They are substantially the same. One cannot exist without the other. Lower-ranked countries exhibit some negative traits. These are harassment and violence against journalists, political partisanship, concentration of media ownership, etc.

The report notes that India has more than a million newspapers, including 36,000 weeklies and 380 news channels, but this “abundance of media hides tendencies towards concentration of ownership”, meaning a kind of monopoly in the hands of an elected few, indicating government control of the media. Various laws and rules aimed at pressuring and intimidating journalists are observed in many of these countries. In a statement, the Press Club of India and the Indian Women Press Corps said attacks on the media across the world have grown in “myriad ways”, including in advanced democracies.
Ideally, media freedom is a fundamental right that should apply to all countries, and especially to countries that claim to be democracies.

Britain has a long tradition of a free and curious press, but unlike the United States, Britain has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom. Nevertheless, he has a decent record. Freedom House, a US-based independent watchdog, ranked the United States 30th out of 197 countries for press freedom in 2014. Its report praised constitutional protections for American journalists and criticized authorities for imposing undue limits on investigative reporting in the name of national security.

The Indian Constitution, while not mentioning the word “press”, provides for “the right to freedom of speech and expression” (Article 19 (1). However, this right is subject to restrictions for reasons of ” sovereignty and integrity of India. It is in the application of these restrictions that arbitrariness often creeps in. State patronage of the media is critical in the Indian context.

Government advertisements are a substantial source of revenue for the media. The government in power can muzzle the media using this source. The fanciful denial of government patronage can result in a terrible loss of income for those so targeted. It is here that there must be an independent ombudsman to ensure that such discrimination does not occur. Most media succumbs to governments in power for pure economic constraints. It would mean a very undemocratic situation where you give up your freedom of expression, much against your will. Isn’t this the negation of a democratic spirit? Democracy is best tested here – the epitome of individual liberty, manifested in freedom of speech and expression. Without such freedom, democracy ceases to exist.

Freedom of the press is therefore nothing but an extension of basic human rights as envisioned in all valid historical documents we can get our hands on. The Press Freedom Index is nothing more than a horoscope of what is to come. As a country, we need to wake up to this reality. Our democracy needs to be refreshed and it cannot wait.

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