Media

The government tries to erect a facade of media freedom in response to India's low ranking in Press Freedom Index

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Kashmiri journalists during a protest demanding the restoration of Internet service, in Srinagar on November 12, 2019. Photo: DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS

P. Sainath , one of the members of the Index Monitoring Cell. The senior journalist’s note literally tears into every claim of the committee’s report on issues of press freedom in India. Photo: MANJUNATH H.S.

Andrew Sam Raja Pandian , the founder of the news portal SimpliCity. He was arrested under the Epidemic Diseases Act for his reports. Photo: facebook

Siddique Kappan , the Kerala journalist who was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police last year while on his way to Hathras where a Dalit girl had died after being gang-raped. Photo: PTI

A committee set up by the government to improve India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index covers the blemishes and disregards the dissent note from the renowned journalist P. Sainath in its report.

The last week of April 2021 witnessed manifold frantic attempts by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre to refute public comments and reports that criticised its abject failures in handling the second wave of COVID-19 in India. In this effort, the government was seen to be deploying various mechanisms and powers at its disposal, giving peremptory directions to social media platforms at one level, and raising objections with international institutions, including media institutions, at another. Among the most striking instances of these attempts were a letter by the Indian High Commission in Canberra to Christian Dore, the Editor of The Australian newspaper, and the government’s order to the social media platform Twitter to remove as many as 50 posts critical of it.

The letter to The Australian followed the newspaper’s reproduction of an article originally published in The Sunday Times of the United Kingdom. The article stated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had led India out of lockdown and into a “viral apocalypse” . It went on to add: “Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India’s crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate.”
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The letter from the Indian High Commission in Canberra branded the article as malicious reporting. “It is astonishing to see that your respected publication has chosen to reproduce a baseless, malicious and slanderous article without bothering to check the facts of the case with any authorities in the Government of India,” said the letter signed by India’s Deputy High Commissioner. The letter claimed that the 2020 lockdown, the current vaccination drive, an upgradation of diagnostics and treatment facilities, and India’s “Vaccine Maitri” initiative, under which it exported 66 million doses of vaccines to nearly a hundred countries, were counters to the point of view expressed in the article. The High Commission also said that it was unfair to blame the current coronavirus surge on the “restricted” election campaign by Modi and “one religious gathering”, evidently a reference to the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in April that saw millions of devotees gather in the BJP-ruled State of Uttarakhand.

Almost simultaneous with this exchange with the Australian newspaper, the Modi government ordered Twitter to remove over 50 posts from its platform. A sizable number of these tweets dealt with issues such as shortage of medicine and beds, mass cremations, and the gathering of crowds at the Kumbh Mela amid the pandemic. The tweets were from accounts of well-known people such as Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera, Member of Parliament Revanth Reddy, West Bengal Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Moloy Ghatak, journalist Pankaj Jha, actor Vineet Kumar Singh, film-maker Avinash Das and film-maker and former journalist Vinod Kapri.

Referring to these actions, Giriraj Singh, a senior BJP leader from Bihar, told Frontline that they were all taken in the right spirit and were absolutely necessary to uphold India’s prestige and standing among world nations. “India and its supreme leader Modi ji are being hailed as saviours of the world amidst the pandemic and the efforts by a handful of people are to tarnish that great image. It is clearly a conspiracy to sabotage Modi ji’s chances of winning the Nobel peace prize for the supply of COVID vaccines to the world. Undoubtedly, we have to expose and oppose it,” Giriraj Singh said, brushing aside reports about the raging pandemic in northern India, the colossal lack of availability of medicines, hospital beds and even spaces in crematoriums to do the last rites of the dead. Media reports from Uttar Pradesh also point to the same refrain by other leaders of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar.
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Evidently, it is a well-orchestrated publicity and public relations offensive by the Modi government and the BJP and other Sangh Parivar constituents. In private interactions, several Sangh Parivar insiders admit that adding to the international image and stature of Modi and his government is a key component of this medium-term exercise. The interactions also indicated that this is a multidimensional operation, which was being pushed over several months. Apparently, one major agenda of this undertaking was to change the abysmal ranking that India obtained in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) in 2020. Last year India was ranked 142 among 180 nations.

 

Press Freedom Index

Several initiatives that were launched to overturn this ranking through 2020 had the unmistakable stamp of public relations and charm offensive. However, all this did not seem to have yielded the desired results. The 2021 World Press Freedom Index Report of the RSF retains the abysmal 142 rank it gave to India in the previous year. Titled ‘Modi tightens his grip on the media’, the report says: “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly. They are exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials….”

It further says: “Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure has increased on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line.... The coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers are terrifying and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered. The campaigns are particularly violent when the targets are women. Criminal prosecutions are meanwhile often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124(a) of the penal code, under which ‘sedition’ is punishable by life imprisonment.” The RSF website also carries four India-related reports (prepared in February and March), denouncing attacks on the media, including “the arbitrary raids on the Delhi news website NewsClick”.

Index Monitoring Cell

Its failure to move up even a single rung in the ladder of press freedom must be rankling with the Modi government. It had made significant moves last year to enhance that ranking. It was so upset by its 142nd rank that it set up a committee to, among a couple of other objectives, “improve the ranking of India in the Press Freedom Index” (page 10, report of the Index Monitoring Cell (IMC)). So serious was the government about this endeavour that the committee called the “Index Monitoring Cell” was formed not by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) on its own initiative but on the direct instructions of the Cabinet Secretary, Government of India. The (supposedly draft) report of the IMC proudly attaches the letter from the Cabinet Secretary as its first appendix.
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Notwithstanding such interesting credentials in terms of its genesis, the fault lines of the IMC were written large right from the beginning. The 13-member committee to look at issues of press freedom with a view to improving India’s ranking had just two journalists among its members. The rest were bureaucrats from the I&B Ministry, the Press Information Bureau (PIB), the NITI Aayog, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, the Press Council of India, the Registrar of Newspapers of India and, not so surprisingly in the context of the international thrust of the exercise, the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. Halfway through, one of the journalist members, Rajat Sharma—who had not spoken in either of the first two meetings—regretted he could not give further time to the IMC. Two others were then co-opted to the IMC.

The Ministry of External Affairs ended up playing an even more important role, way above the level of the Director of its External Publicity Division. Indeed, says the IMC report on page 16, “a meeting between the Ambassador of India to France and RSF officials was arranged wherein the Ambassador presented India’s perspective on the subject matter”. The Ambassador? Surely our ‘image’ in the West mattered so much to the Government of India. Appendix 11 of the IMC report shows that the Government of India felt it was not enough for top I&B bureaucrats or others to meet the Reporters Sans Frontiers group to explain India’s ‘position’. (Frontline has in its possession the report of the committee and all its 17 appendices.) They got India’s Ambassador to France to do it, no less. It was that important for them.

Incidentally, the request from Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of the RSF, was for a meeting with Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, Principal Director General (PDG) of the PIB. The meeting between Deloire and the Ambassador took place on September 2, 2020. Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk (HAPD) of the RSF, also took part in the meeting in which five key points came up for discussion As per Appendix 11, these were: i) The diversity of India’s mediascape that reflects the diversity in languages, communities, cultures, politics and opinions in the country; ii) The culture of acceptance, criticism, debate and coexistence of opinions in Indian press; iii) Freedom of press in Jammu and Kashmir; iv) Discussion on the methodology used for the preparation of the press freedom index by RSF; and v ) The debate on press freedom: protection of press freedom versus national and internal security of India. The RSF team raised pointed questions on each aspect and the Ambassador presented India’s position.

The Ambassador’s presentation

Apart from generalisations such as “the Indian press rightly represents the richness of the nation’s opinions, languages, geographies, cultures, scripts and communities, that reflects in the sheer magnitude and diversity with around 35,000 newspaper dailies, more than 900 channels and 390 radio stations”, the Ambassador’s presentations also included claims that “the real challenge in Jammu and Kashmir was not of press freedom, but of the influx of messages through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc., which threatens our national security”. The argument also had it that “the cross border attacks not only incite violence in Jammu and Kashmir, but also indoctrinate the youth making them susceptible to recruitment by terrorist organisations in Pakistan” and hence “the government was forced to shut down the Internet for a short period, to ensure the security of Indian citizens in the region”.
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The RSF raised the issues of violence faced by journalists in India and said that it reports India to be one of the countries where it is most difficult to be a journalist, specifying a case in Uttar Pradesh and the specific instances of environmental reporters killed by the sand mafia in recent years. The Ambassador’s response to this was that “many incidents reported as attacks on journalists are often a consequence of the law and order situation in some areas of India” and that “this is often misrepresented as targeted attacks on journalists by the state in Western media”. The Ambassador went on to add that “sporadic attacks on journalists exist, however it is misrepresentation to propagate the idea that journalists are completely unsafe in India”.

P. Sainath’s dissent note

However, despite such importance accorded to the IMC, with the Union Cabinet Secretary ordering its setting up and the Indian Ambassador to France representing it before the RSF, the functioning of the committee practically came to a stop towards the end of 2020. The IMC has not met since December 7. There has been no official mail communication with the full Cell since December 18. Though not acknowledged publicly, a significant reason for the stasis seems to be the dissent note sent in by the renowned journalist P. Sainath, who was one of the journalist members of the IMC. Sainath’s note demanded that it be carried as an independent note within the report. His note also made it clear to the PIB-I&B team that they would not be able to deliver the report the government desired.

The senior journalist’s note literally tears into every claim of the government-controlled report on issues of press freedom in India. Put simply, Sainath’s note, if carried, would have been highly embarrassing to the IMC exercise as a whole and its drivers such as the Cabinet Secretary in particular. For starters, Sainath’s note said: “A fair and honest ranking would see India plumbing the depths below (rank) 142.”

The dissent note further observed that the draft report had failed to get “anywhere close” to its stated objectives. It also noted that Prime Minister Modi had declared the media an “essential service” last March but the attacks on journalists, false arrests, harassment and intimidation, abuse of legal provisions to torment them by the government and vigilante groups had subsequently risen a lot more. An appendix to his note lists 52 laws that relate to, and in some way affect, the media in India. Some of these go back to colonial times but are actively being used against journalists today. The dissent note also called for a law for police accountability, ensuring jail term for those who knowingly frame innocent persons in false cases. Each criticism the note makes is supported by multiple, referenced examples of ground reality.
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Excerpts from the dissent note

Some excerpts from the note:

On the IMC report draft: “There is no description, no recounting or measuring of the situation on the ground in relation to press freedom and, there is not a single mention of ‘accountability’ of the state and governments or any level of authorities.”

On the silence in public over the Cell’s activity: “A committee (or ‘cell’) convened on the issue of press freedom cannot function in silence or secrecy. We have to be upfront and state plainly and publicly about the situation as it exists. If we censor ourselves—imagine what that says about the state of freedom in the larger media canvas of the country.”

On the use of the Epidemic Diseases Act against Andrew Sam Raja Pandian [founder of the news portal SimpliCity] in Tamil Nadu: “Appears to be the only time ever in India’s independent history that a journalist has ever been booked under this law. Prior to Independence, the British used sections of that very Act to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak….”

On the first thing the committee should have done: “The committee should go on record in saying that a central element of press freedom is the recognition of the right to dissent [of the journalist and other citizens], that applies to and should be accepted by both government and media owners…. The right to dissent is very central….”

On Internet shutdowns in Kashmir: “They are very grave violations with severe consequences in social, economic, political and human rights spheres. Also, they are a very feudal form of collective punishment—punishing an entire region, once a state, for things claimed to be the doings of a handful of foreign-bred terrorists.”

On the arrest of stand-up comic Munawar Farooqi for jokes he never made but allegedly intended to: “So now you can be jailed for your thoughts. You can even be jailed for what the police or other authorities claim were your thoughts—regardless of whether those claims are bunkum.”

The note of dissent savages the main report’s claim that “there is no pre- or post-censorship on any news report in India, subject to the reasonable restrictions provided on free speech provided in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution”. The dissent note points out that “that is the one and only instance where the word ‘censorship’ occurs in the 45-page draft report. And that reference asserts the absence of it!”

On government tactics in attacking independent media: “A newer tactic is the bringing of sometimes unspecified charges of serious economic offences—such as the raids carried out by the Enforcement Directorate against the independent media group NewsClick. The group was apparently not given even a copy of the search warrant flashed at them. This is very similar to the raids on the well-known human rights organisation Amnesty International which has seen its bank accounts—with crores of rupees, frozen… [this way] small independent groups can be driven to bankruptcy. Which means that even when they are proven innocent (of what charges—they are yet to learn about), it will be unlikely that they can continue their journalism.”

The dissent note lists a number of words indispensable to any discussion of freedom of press, including ‘censorship’, and notes on the basis of a search that the following words simply do not appear even once in the 45-page government IMC report on press freedom and freedom of expression:

Dissent/Right to dissent

False pretences

Sedition charges

Sacking of journalists under government pressure

Sacking of editors

Abuse of law

Intimidation by government agencies

Arbitrary action against journalists

Detention without being produced in court

Salary cuts

Retrenchments

Arrests

Censorship

Public humiliation

Accountability

Recommendations

The note of dissent authored by Sainath makes several recommendations of what the final report should call for. Excerpts:

“The first thing the report needs to clearly state: that we recognise the existence of a serious crisis in freedom of expression in the country (without which there would have been no need for this committee)—and which has reached the proportions of an undeclared emergency for the media, particularly for independent-minded journalists.”

Also, that the committee or ‘Cell’ report needed to establish accountability of the state, its agencies and the government itself. Sainath went on to call for the dropping of all first information reports (FIRs) filed against journalists in the past year or more and release of all journalists incarcerated on outrageous charges like that of the Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). He also called for the setting up of a legal defence body for journalists, “that they do not have to pay for—which fights for mediapersons who have had false cases foisted on them and build that alongside creating the law for Police (and other authorities) Accountability, 2020”.

The senior journalist’s recommendations also point out that “journalist unions, associations and professional bodies are the best defence against abuse of the journalists’ rights, the best guarantee of the journalists’ independence”. He added that “cracking down on the violations of the best laws relating to the media such as the Working Journalists Act” should be a priority and that there should be steps to ensure “that media owners should not be allowed to pre-empt or kill the formation of journalist unions nor forbid collective bargaining”. He pointed out that “we (the IMC as a whole) should have also called for not just a strengthening of the Press Council or the creation of a Media Council, but for the appointment of a Press Commission” that would go into the entire gamut of issues and problems afflicting Indian media and journalism and not just in the press but other media platforms too.
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The IMC had four full meetings, while several sub-groups (on which there were no journalists, only government employees) had several meetings in between and after those. Since December 22, there has been no official communication to the members. Its chairperson Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, Principal Director General of the PIB, is no longer in government service, having superannuated in end-February.

The mail sharing the ‘draft report’ in mid-December said ‘draft’ in the email subject line, but the front cover does not use that word. It says ‘Report of…’ suggesting that they saw it as the final report. The dissent note is not part of it, though Sainath’s is the very first namein the very first line of the report’s text, expressing its “gratitude” to him and others. And so the status of a committee set up on orders from the highest bureaucratic quarters remains a mystery, its last meeting having been over four months ago.

A survey of 18 journalists!

The embarrassment it caused is real: while lobbying desperately with organisations such as the RSF for a better ranking, the government can, within India, dismiss their reports as reeking of “Western bias”. It is hard to do that with a note in a report of a government committee. Some of the things the sub-groups did, too, are hilarious. To show that the RSF’s interpretations were flawed, it conducted a survey of 18 journalists, 10 foreign and eight Indians, within India, using exactly the same survey approach of the RSF. Surely enough, the first conclusion of the survey was: “In India, majority of the respondents indicated that complete freedom of media exists (62.5%) whereas in other countries, the opinion was the other way round: 60% of the respondents claimed limited independence of the media….”
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The sample in this survey is funny: All 18 respondents (Appendix 17) were from one course of one programme at one institution, the government-controlled Indian Institute of Mass Communication. All were participants in the four-month diploma course—Development Journalism Training Course—organised under the aegis of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Now, while the unfinished operations and the final import of the IMC remain a mystery, new forays and raids have been initiated across several fronts, including social media platforms and internal media institutions. Indeed, it is the Giriraj Singh narrative that drives these aggressive manoeuvres. The Modi fan club, including a large section of the mainstream Indian media, is lapping up and hailing these operations, but would it really help in garnering or enhancing the government’s image globally? Not much hope there, if the RSF experiences of 2020 and 2021 are anything to go by.

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