The recently published South Asia Press Freedom Report 2022-2023, released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), sheds light on the extensive array of obstacles faced by media outlets in South Asian countries, with India at the forefront. The report, titled “Pressure & Polarisation: Powering Media Resistance in South Asia”, highlights alarming levels of media restrictions in India, driven by corporate takeovers and targeted harassment, which have hindered unbiased coverage and raised concerns about the democratic process itself.
One of the most visible threats to media autonomy in India, as noted in the report, is the growing influence of corporate ownership over independent media outlets. Additionally, India has witnessed the highest number of internet shutdowns globally for the fifth consecutive year. The erosion of autonomy poses a significant threat to the diversity of voices and the free flow of information.
The India story
During the pandemic years in India, the media industry witnessed a wave of retrenchments, with many job losses going unnoticed. According to the report, these retrenchments were carried out discreetly, exacerbating the challenges faced by journalists and media professionals.
Furthermore, the report highlights the divisive labelling of media outlets in India, with certain sections identified as pro-government and others as hostile or “anti-national.” These labels have subjected journalists to various forms of harassment, including the filing of criminal cases against them.
Law enforcement agencies in India, deployed by the government to conduct raids, searches, and “surveys” on independent media houses, have further exacerbated the situation, the report noted. Such actions not only impede journalistic endeavours but also infringe upon press freedom.
The report also brings attention to the obstruction faced by journalists, especially those from Kashmir. Authorities have filed cases under counter-terror laws and blocked their international travel, severely limiting their ability to report on critical issues. Additionally, digital surveillance in India has intensified, with significant changes made to information technology laws, ostensibly in the name of national security and sovereignty. This heightened surveillance raises concerns about the right to privacy and the protection of journalistic sources.
The concentration of media ownership in the hands of corporate houses is another concerning trend highlighted in the report. Corporate acquisitions of independent voices within the electronic media sector further diminish the diversity of viewpoints and reinforce the dominance of corporate interests in shaping public discourse.
South Asian challenges
The South Asia Press Freedom Report serves as a critical reminder of the challenges faced by journalists and media organisations across the region. Afghanistan stands out as a poignant example of media struggles under Taliban rule, with stringent restrictions on reporting sensitive issues resulting in substantial job losses. Sri Lanka’s media landscape has also been profoundly affected by severe cuts brought about by an ongoing economic crisis.
Press freedom remains a pressing concern in Pakistan despite a change in regime. Nepal and Bhutan face considerable hurdles in accessing vital information, while religious extremism and media polarisation have particularly challenged Bangladesh and the Maldives, according to the report.
The report also exposes targeted attacks against journalists, tragically resulting in the loss of 13 lives across the region. It strongly advocates for the implementation of laws that hold perpetrators accountable and draws attention to the unresolved murder of Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif, highlighting the urgent need to operationalise the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act in Pakistan.
Moreover, the report delves into the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the media ecosystem, alongside the concerning proliferation of misinformation through technology platforms. Issues raised include instances of law enforcement agencies overstepping boundaries, raids on media houses, blocking of critical documentaries, and the filing of multiple police complaints against journalists.
In South Asia, journalists are grappling with a formidable obstacle: the intensifying divisions within their communities, often drawn along religious fault lines. These divisions, which not only reflect societal tensions but at times exacerbate them, have presented significant challenges for the media in the region. The Maldives, for instance, has witnessed a rise in self-censorship among journalists who fear being branded as “secularist” or “anti-Islamic,” while websites deemed critical of Islamic beliefs routinely face censorship.
Similarly, Pakistan has experienced a surge in violations against the media driven by religious polarisation in politics. Journalists there are increasingly confronted with blasphemy charges and threats for defending the rights of religious minorities.
A comprehensive report sheds light on the lack of autonomy plaguing press councils and media regulators throughout the region, revealing concerns about their perceived political motivations. Moreover, the report underscores the myriad challenges faced by women journalists, including gender discrimination, threats, and workplace harassment.
However, it also recognises the crucial role that unions, associations, and coalitions play in advocating for gender equity and independent reporting. To address these pressing issues, the report emphasises the importance of equipping journalists with the necessary resources and training, particularly in areas such as fact-checking and countering disinformation.
Given the absence of robust internal checks and balances in certain countries, international solidarity becomes paramount. Diplomatic efforts must prioritise press freedom, even when engaging with entities such as the Taliban, urging them to alleviate restrictions on women working in the media. Collaborative initiatives, such as journalist safety coalitions and commissions for the protection of journalists, hold the potential to significantly enhance safety measures and combat impunity.
As polarisation continues to afflict societies across South Asia, it is evident that journalists face an arduous task. However, by bolstering support networks, advocating for gender equality, and fostering international cooperation, they can strive to overcome these challenges and safeguard the principles of a free and independent press, said the report.