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Where Does Press Freedom In India Stand Today?

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This World Press Freedom Day is an apt occasion for us to pay our tributes to Amit Topno, a young journalist from Jharkhand who was shot dead on December 9 last year, by attackers who remain untraced thus far. He was born and brought up in Khunti, the birthplace of the legendary Birsa Munda, and he seems to have imbibed Birsa’s spirit in standing up to oppression and exploitation.

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Amit Topno

Whether it be speaking out against organized theft of resources on Adivasi land to cities, or deliberate neglect of Anganwadi centres in tribal districts, or illegal underpayment/wage theft by non-Adivasi rural employers, he was always on hand to expose the myriad injustices being meted out to Adivasis in the forest belt of Jharkhand on a regular basis. He would pull no punches. He was reportedly well known in the local Hindi-language media for his courageous and committed journalism, and has left behind a valuable body of work highlighting violations of Adivasi rights in a sensitive part of the so-called Maoist (“Red”) “corridor“.

He was an important voice in a country where those high and mighty lodged in the insular islands of power arbitrarily decide whether or not the vulnerable and disenfranchised should be allowed to live on their own plots of land. One of Amit’s last projects was to cover the semi-famous Pathalgadi movement, which saw massive mobilization among the Adivasis of Khunti in asserting their rights over their land, water, and environment against the constant depredations of greedy “dikus” (“outsiders”), facilitated by the State and Central governments.

They symbolically suggested that, at least for Adivasis, the Indian Constitution was a dead document. The murder that consumed Amit Topno would seem to confirm that – given the freedom that Article 19(1)(a) supposedly gives to journalists appears, in the current political epoch, to be a dead concept. After all, Amit Topno was an Adivasi journalist.

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Gauri Lankesh

Topno’s murder is one of the lesser known sacrifices of journalism to the culture of political violence in India. Gauri Lankesh’s murder in 2017 was one of the most widely covered pieces of news on the subject of violence against journalists in the country. She was killed outside her residence by trained Hindutva thugs for her criticism of Hindutva hate politics in general and the Modi government’s policies in particular. One of the alleged murderers, later arrested, accused her of holding anti-Hindu sentiments.

Rajesh Verma and Israr, journalist and cameraperson respectively, were killed – some allege targeted – while covering the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh; Sandeep Kothari was abducted and killed in 2015 for writing against mining mafia in Madhya Pradesh; Indradev Yadav was murdered in 2016 for refusing to give in to Maoist extortionist demands; Dharmendra Singh was shot dead in 2016 in Sasaram, Bihar, for writing to expose illegal stone mining; Sudip Datta Bhowmik and Santanu Bhowmik were killed in Tripura by a policeman and by a group of militants respectively.

Those who were ‘luckier’, the likes of Kamran Yousuf, a young photojournalist who was arrested and later released for his work in the troubled paradise of Kashmir, have ridiculous charges – like sedition (more on this later) – imposed on them and their journalistic credentials questioned when they probe state atrocities. Or you could be Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who was arrested under the National Security Act – which allows for detention up to a year without trial – apparently for making an anti-Modi comment.

All these journalists were working in small towns or places in India mostly neglected by the Indian metropole, with small media outlets in vernacular languages, meaning that they had the potential to reach and report from the crucial grassroots of Indian democracy. They were low-profile, working with relatively less job security and lesser pay, and therefore some of the most vulnerable journalists in India. In the age of technology and with rising literacy levels (albeit extremely slowly), ever more people in the country are becoming consumers of news and understanding the impact of events on their lives.

This has given rise to a competitive media environment where many journalists work overtime and not infrequently on risky subjects. Others, like Topno, come from backgrounds where they have had firsthand experience of oppression, and are determined to see justice done to their communities and those like them. Sometimes that takes them into ‘forbidden’ territories, where powerful political and corporate interests are in play, and their adventure ends in tragedy.

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Shujaat Bukhari

Although journalists working in the English-language media or national level Hindi-language media typically have a higher profile, even they have not been exempted from attacks in recent times. Shujaat Bukhari, a highly respected journalist and editor who had been covering Kashmir for decades, was shot dead in broad daylight last year. It has become increasingly common for journalists to get death threats and doxxed now, as in the case of Ravish Kumar.

Investigative journalists like Rana Ayyub, who apart from building the case for the Modi-led Gujarat government’s alleged complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the State in her book, comes in for a special brand of hatred for being a no-nonsense Muslim woman journalist. She has got several death/rape threats, has been attacked by Hindutva trolls on social media for being Muslim, branded a prostitute and has had a doctored pornographic video circulated in her name. Things have been so serious that the UN human rights officials decided to get involved, urging India’s government to provide her protection, a request that appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Rana isn’t feeling any safer.

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Rana Ayyub

No journalist who chooses to do her job can in the current environment. This space isn’t enough to mention each of the scores of cases where the freedom of Indian journalists to express themselves has been curtailed by the executive or the judiciary, but this small effort is to emphasize the extent to which the fourth estate in India is threatened. Considering all this, there would seem to be more sacrifices like that of Lankesh in the offing.

The latest rankings of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media freedom watchdog, have placed India at 140 (among 180 countries) on the World Press Freedom Index in 2019, 2 places lower than where it was the previous year. India has slid down the table continuously since 2016. The report of RSF on India is worth quoting in full here, as it summarizes well the state of media freedom in the country:

“Violence against journalists – including police violence, attacks by Maoist fighters, and reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt politicians – is one of the most striking characteristics of the current state of press freedom in India. At least six Indian journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018. A number of doubts surround a seventh case. These murders highlighted the many dangers Indian journalists face, especially those working for non-English-language media outlets in rural areas. Attacks against journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased in the run-up to general elections in the spring of 2019. Those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate.

The coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that aggravate Hindutva followers are alarming and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered. The campaigns are particularly virulent when the targets are women. The emergence of a #MeToo movement in the media in 2018 has lifted the veil on many cases of harassment and sexual assault to which women reporters have been subjected. Criminal prosecutions are meanwhile often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. The mere threat of such a prosecution encourages self-censorship. Finally, coverage of regions that the authorities regard as sensitive, such as Kashmir, continues to be very difficult. Foreign reporters are barred from Kashmir and the Internet is often disconnected there. When not detained, Kashmiri journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by paramilitaries acting with the central government’s tacit consent.”

The ‘sedition’ law, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is a colonial era law which was used as an aggressive clampdown measure by the British government against any dissent from Indians, and has been used repeatedly by governments in independent India to silence dissenters and journalists who expose abuses of power. In addition to this, the now illegal Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000, continues to be used by law enforcement agencies to harass dissenting voices or amateur/netizen journalists on social media.

This leads to a lot of people keeping mum for fear of being persecuted. In 2016, Community to Protect Journalists, another NGO tracking performance of countries on press freedom and journalist rights, put India at 13th on the Global Impunity Index, which was around the time India’s rankings on the RSF Index also started seeing a steady decline. India happened to be one of only 3 countries – the others being Syria and South Sudan, both nations torn by civil strife – to not submit themselves to UNESCO’s impunity accountability mechanism, which requests information on the status of investigations into killed journalists for the U.N. agency’s biennial report on journalist safety.

The growing trend of corporate and political ownership of media (especially broadcast media) houses has meant that powerful and moneyed interests have been pipping public interest with alarming regularity. Politically opinionated hacks now operate as “journalists” on bespoke “news” channels, amid a surfeit of “breaking news”, performative slanging matches, obscene cacophony, and wall-to-wall boondoggle.

Big money, “24X7” news is less about holding power to account and informing a democracy than settling political scores, grabbing eyeballs and manipulation of the audience’s emotions. Corporatization of the media has led to a serious erosion of the institution of the media itself. The triple-headed spectre of fake news, clickbait journalism and dedicated misinformation campaigns has further queered the pitch for traditional, reliable print and broadcast media.

One would be foolish to think that it was much better for Indian journalists in some past halcyon period. Covering elections in troubled regions, for example, has almost always been a very risky affair, especially till the 1980s, as this story highlights. Fear and venality of lesser people have more often than not been weaponized by the rich and powerful to subvert and corrupt India’s democracy.

The Windhoek Declaration, which was a precursor to the UN announcing May 3  as World Press Freedom Day in 1993 and was endorsed by the UNESCO in 1991, stressed on the importance of the press being “independent, pluralistic and free”. By an independent press, it meant “independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals”. By a pluralistic press, it meant “end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community”. By that definition, our press is definitely not independent, and it is “pluralistic” only in a regressive, even destructive, sense.

Some sections of the media have been in cahoots with the politically powerful, giving rise to such unique scandals such as paid news. Crony capitalism has been allowed to subordinate ethical values that inform the discipline of journalism to narrow political interests, thus cheapening journalism itself. Two keywords of good governance, “transparency” and “accountability”, have always sounded good on paper, but authorities have almost always religiously avoided submitting themselves to those lofty standards of probity. Courageous journalism over the years has ensured that sanctimonious political bosses are reminded that in a democracy they ought to practise the principles they declaim with aplomb from their bully pulpits to the supposedly ignorant hordes. Often this has come at great personal costs to journalists, as has been demonstrated earlier.

How has the political class responded to the plight of journalists and of journalism itself? Aside from cases where there is proactive censoring of the media and punishing of journalists by governments on the flimsiest of pretexts, politicians on the Opposition have only performatively protested excesses and censorship against journalists or certain media houses. There has, however, been a welcome change in the manifestos of certain Opposition parties this election season, where pressing issues like journalist safety, cross-media monopolization by corporate houses, fake news and paid news etc have been given a mention and sought to be redressed.

However, these are a) contingent upon the electoral victory of the concerned parties, b)”just promises” at this stage. But at least it’s a start. The fact that Opposition parties have concerned themselves with issues like press freedom and journalist safety means they have acquired critical political gravity, and have realized the value of an independent press in a functioning democracy. If they win, it’s critically important that the promises, like most pre-poll promises, are not broken. Moreover, the citizenry needs to engage more critically with information, learn to fact-check and tell false information from real, and generally be more vocal in their support of good journalism.

Citizens need to make use of the power that social media endows them with to not only support and promote press freedom, but also serve as complements to professional journalists to the extent possible. We need to follow as many vernacular media journalists as possible on social media or otherwise, and extend visible support to their work, because these journalists provide vital links to the lowest rungs of India’s democracy and are the ones most at risk.

We must collectively put pressure on our governments to ensure protection to all journalists, and to pass laws to ensure mandatory public disclosure of ownership of media and conflict of interest details in a bid to secure independence of the media. All of us need to channel our inner Amit Topnos and defend the real ones outside of us. It will be difficult to sustain our beloved democracy, already under vicious attack from malicious forces within and without, otherwise.

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