India’s Press Freedom Ranking Slides, Falls Behind Afghanistan, Pakistan

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In terms of the security indicator category, the RSF report ranks India worse than all other countries except for China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Myanmar 

Team Clarion

NEW DELHI — India has slipped to the 161st position out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, according to the latest report from global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

There are more than 100,000 newspapers (including 36,000 weeklies) and 380 TV news channels currently operating in the country. Since January 1, 2023, one journalist was killed in the country while 10 journalists are behind bars. This year’s RAF report shows the number of countries deemed “satisfactory” for their treatment of journalists rising slightly, but so does the number where the situation is “very serious”.

It is particularly concerning that in the security indicator category, India has fallen to 172 out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index. This means that only eight countries have a worse ranking than India when it comes to ensuring the safety and security of journalists.

In terms of this parameter, India is ranked worse than all other countries except for China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Myanmar. The last-named country has the lowest ranking.

The World Press Freedom Index is based on five different factors that are used to calculate scores and rank countries. These five sub-indicators include the political, economic, legislative indicator, social, and security. Scores are calculated for each of these indicators and used to determine the overall ranking of countries in terms of press freedom.

India’s performance in the World Press Freedom Index is also poor compared to other countries in South Asia. Bangladesh ranks slightly worse than India at 163, while Pakistan ranks ahead of India at 150.

Surprisingly, even Afghanistan, where the Taliban government is known to restrict independent journalism, has a better ranking than India, at 152. Bhutan has a much better ranking at 90, while Sri Lanka is ranked at 135.

Nordic countries like Norway, Ireland, and Denmark ranked top three respectively while Vietnam, China, and North Korea were the bottom three countries on the index.

Russia, where the government has largely completed its quelling of independent media, fell nine places to 164th. Despite the Russian invasion and its own issues with oligarchs, Ukraine rose 27 places to the 79th position.

The report notes with concern the “acquisition of media outlets by oligarchs who maintain close ties with political leaders”, especially in India, “where all the mainstream media are now owned by wealthy businessmen close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.

“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’,” it said.

In the rankings for 2022, it was India that was ranked 150, while Pakistan came in at 157.

The RSF report states that Modi has an army of supporters “who track down all online reporting regarded as critical of the government and wage horrific harassment campaigns against the sources. Caught between these two forms of extreme pressure, many journalists are, in practice, forced to censor themselves.”

One of the most bizarre points RSF put in its report is about the money the government of India spends on advertisements. RSF claimed the central government is spending more than Rs 130 billion rupees (Rs 13,000 crores) on ads in the print and online media alone.

Under the ‘Economic Context’, the report read, “The Indian press is a colossus with feet of clay. Despite often huge stock market valuations, media outlets largely depend on advertising contracts with local and regional governments. In the absence of an airtight border between business and editorial policy, media executives often see the latter as just a variable to be adjusted according to business needs. At the national level, the central government has seen that it can exploit this to impose its own narrative. It is now spending more than Rs 130 billion a year on print and online media ads alone. Recent years have also seen the rise of “Godi media” (a play on Modi’s name and lapdogs) – media outlets that mix populism and pro-BJP propaganda. The old Indian model of a pluralist press is, therefore, being seriously challenged by a combination of harassment and influence.”

“Under the guise of combating COVID-19,” the report notes, “the government and its supporters have waged a guerrilla war of lawsuits against media outlets whose coverage of the pandemic contradicted official statements. Journalists who try to cover anti-government strikes and protests are often arrested and sometimes detained arbitrarily.”

The propagation of Hindutva ideology also bears central responsibility for the decline in India’s press freedom, according to the report.

“Supporters of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu far-right, wage all-out online attacks on any views that conflict with their thinking. Terrifying coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder are conducted on social media, campaigns that are often even more violent when they target women journalists, whose personal data may be posted online as an additional incitement to violence,” the report states.

As a result of this persecutory climate, 3 to 4 journalists are killed on average each year in India, making it one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. The report also notes how India’s Hindu, upper-caste, male-dominated media landscape has excluded women and countless minorities from media representation, while permitting the propagation of dangerous Islamophobic conspiracy theories, including blaming Muslims for the spread of COVID-19.

Another regional issue it highlights is the persistence of “off-limit questions and taboo subjects” that prevent journalists from working freely. “This is clearly the case in Afghanistan (152nd), where the Taliban government does not tolerate straying from its version of Islamic law and where women journalists are in the process of being literally erased from the media landscape,” the report notes.

The RSF ranking states that overall, only 52 countries of the world can be described as providing a ‘good’ or ‘fairly good’ environment for journalism.

The change of government in Pakistan, however, is said to have “loosened constraints on the media”, even though it continues to be among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists “with three to four murders each year that are often linked to cases of corruption or illegal trafficking and which go completely unpunished”.

Any journalist who crosses red lines is liable to be the target of in-depth surveillance that could lead to abduction and detention for varying lengths of time in the state’s prisons or less official jails, it says.

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