In the pre-Independence period, Indian nationalists faced several harsh experiences, when it came to free speech. The colonialists feared free speech as it would engage and unite the masses in protesting against their arbitrary rule in India. Harsh measures, like the Rowlatt Act, were the results of such a fear.
To avoid a similar experience in independent India, the makers of our Constitution gave primacy to the right to freedom of speech and expression, while drafting it. In fact, this is one of the striking features of the world’s largest democracy, and one of the requirements for it to succeed.
But the latest Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders is not a good sign for a democratic country like India, at all. India was ranked 136 in the list of 180 countries – lower than countries like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
The report by Reporters Without Borders points out that with the increase of threats (both online and from other sources), Indian journalists are being forced into self-censorship. The report came as a heavy blow to pro-Modi supporters, because it clearly mentions that the ‘purging of anti-national thought in national debate’ has led to a decline in free speech.
Other factors which have resulted in India’s low ranking on the list are the cut-down of internet in Jammu & Kashmir and limited internet coverage in sensitive areas.
While thinking about the Press Freedom Index, I remembered a news report which I had read, a few days back. It said that one of India’s leading media network groups had issued a set of social media guidelines to its journalists.
The doubt I had after reading it was regarding how a media group can deliver unbiased content, when free speech is denied to their journalists.
This trend of decline in free speech is worrying. Press or the media is considered to be the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’. Therefore, its independence must be preserved for sustaining democracy. The government, political parties and media groups can do several things to ensure the independence of journalists.
It’s true that social media has both merits and demerits. Nowadays, it is common to abuse/troll anyone who has an opposite view. Journalists are the worst-hit, in such abusive campaigns.
Moreover, almost every political party has its so-called ‘supporters’ on social media. This cannot be regulated only by laws. Every party must come forward and take strict action against its members who are found guilty of such acts. The government must ensure that journalists are safe, especially from threats of physical violence.
Also, the government must try to adopt the most effective measures in sensitive areas like Kashmir – rather than taking measures like banning the internet, which curb the rights of people.
Last, but not the least – media groups must give more freedom and support to their journalists to cope up with the threats faced by them. This will, in turn, increase their popularity and also reinforce the trust of the citizens.