India’s ranking in press freedom has seen a significant decline, as per the latest report by global media watchdog RSF or Reporters Without Borders. Released on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), the report ranked India 161st out of 180 countries. Some experts believe that the recent raids at the BBC headquarters in India, which drew worldwide criticism, coupled with the generally restrictive environment in which reporters operate, contributed to this decline. India’s ranking in 2022 was 150.
Neighboring countries Sri Lanka and Pakistan have shown improvement in their rankings compared to last year, with Pakistan climbing to the 150th spot from 157th in 2022, and Sri Lanka jumping 11 spots to acquire the 135th rank. Norway, Ireland, and Denmark secured the first three ranks, respectively. Meanwhile, Vietnam (178th), China (179th), and North Korea (180th) were at the bottom three.
The RSF report notes that “China is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and press freedom advocates” and criticises the corporatisation of media in India, pointing out that “all the mainstream media are now owned by wealthy businessmen close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
Journalists are forced to censor themselves
The report highlights that the fear of a political backlash is forcing journalists to restrict their content. “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… many journalists are, in practice, forced to censor themselves.”
The Indian government dismissed the RSF’s 2022 findings, questioning the sample size and methodology. Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said in Parliament that the government did not consider the RSF’s findings given its “very low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and non-transparent.”
Among the things that kept the state of Indian media in the news globally was the 2022 takeover of anti-establishment television station NDTV by business magnate Gautam Adani, known to be close to PM Modi. Such an acquisition was not a one-off case. In 2014, soon after Modi ascended to power, Network18 was acquired by Mukesh Ambani, another pro-establishment corporate giant. According to the RSF report, Mukesh Ambani owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians. Even as corporatisation of media is a global phenomenon, in India, it seems to have happened at the expense of journalism of integrity.
Siddiq Wahid, a noted academician and commentator, explained why. “In the U.S., the nexus between corporate wealth and the media is an evolved phenomenon. Over the last couple of centuries, a large segment of the media there has been able to carve out a relatively independent role for itself.”
According to Wahid, prejudice is not absent in the media, but it has evolved into a nuanced and subtle art with assertive and well-framed freedom of expression laws. “In contrast, the nexus between money and political power has been recent in India,” he said, adding that, as a result, principled media’s space, in the wake of a rich tradition from the independence struggle, has shrunk, and “upstart media companies have located dark private money to substitute good journalism for venting and mere opinion,” he told Frontline.
Wahid said that the advent of instant digital media and journalism has been a lethal combination in both the U.S. and India, but “it has been more combustible in India, where democratic governance is still in its infancy.”
In April, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules 2023, according to which the Government will establish a fact-checking unit for identifying ‘fake,’ ‘false,’ or ‘misleading’ content. The move is seen to be damaging to overall press freedom.
BBC raid and after
Earlier in February, the agencies had raided the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai and accused the globally acclaimed news broadcaster of evading taxes. The crackdown was deplored worldwide, with a New York Times editorial in February stating, “Since Mr. Modi took office in 2014, journalists have increasingly risked their careers and their lives to report what the government doesn’t want them to.”
The raids had followed a BBC documentary which was aired less than a month ago and was critical of Narendra Modi. The Government had banned viewing of the BBC documentary on Godhra in India. The Press Club of India had decried the BBC raids as a “clear-cut case of vendetta.” The two-part BBC documentary titled, “The Modi Question,” attempted to revive unanswered questions in the 2002 Godhra carnage.
Political commentator Manindra Thakur, who says he is very disillusioned by the top media anchors, feels that Indian media’s lack of independent resources is the reason why it is unable to generate scrupulous news. “Indian media is dependent on the state as well as capitalists for resources. The job insecurity of journalists also encourages them to compromise on the quality of news. Many of them are sold out easily. India needs to create a news corporation like the BBC with good funding. Probably, this will give some autonomy from political parties and the capital,” he told Frontline.
Thakur is of the opinion that the trajectory of financial growth of media persons warrants scrutiny. “Is there any data on the wealth of the prominent anchors and their initial condition?” he asks, adding, “A good research is needed on the prevalent moral decline of the media channels and personnel.”
RSF is an international NGO headquartered in Paris that states defending and promoting media freedom as its objective and enjoys a consultative position with the UN.
According to RSF, press freedom is all about “the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety.