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When ‘Democratic’ Powers Suppress Press Freedoms: A Global Trend

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Means of dissemination of information relating to the affairs of the ruling class have been in place since a very long time, although controlled by the same echelons of society for as long a period. It was believed that if the people thought of something opposing what these echelons wanted them to believe, it could cause chaos. Religion was also controlled by the state, leading to those questioning earlier beliefs to be considered as infidels. This led to, for instance, the infamous Inquisition in Christianity, causing the deaths of many.

Yet the ruling classes were not able to contain criticisms against themselves for long. This was facilitated by the easier access to paper and printed media through which critics could spread their ideas and muster support. Very often, the monarchs stopped them by clamping down on the freedoms that the people claimed to have, failing to do which, there could be revolutions against them, as in France in 1789.

Press Freedom In Democracies

One may assume that with the rise of parliamentary democracies, the conflict pertaining to the rights of the people and the role of the ruling classes may have been eased. However, this assumption is far from true. While many countries have retained an independent press as a democratic institution, many have failed to do so. Even old, established democracies like the U.S. don’t have a particularly good record as far as news coverage is concerned, with channels like Fox News being deeply sympathetic to the Republican Party. This partisanship is not a direct result of curtailed press freedoms but is a factor that contributes to it. Logically, when certain news channels are biased towards the ruling party, they adopt strong rhetoric in favor of it. Most governments would sooner be sympathized with than criticized, leading to them giving preference to certain news channels in terms of funds and aid.

On the other hand, press freedoms may also be directly controlled by the state. Most democratic countries promise the press the freedom to share news as it deems fit. This may be in favor of or opposed to the activities of the state. It is based on the notion that such unbiased news will serve two purposes, namely to give the citizens a fair idea of the happenings in the country, and to criticize the government when required, hence constraining their powers and ensuring they don’t spread misinformation. This is significantly different from the partisan news in the respect that the latter exercises its freedoms while supporting a certain ideology. But there is a fine line between the two, one that often gets mixed up. This is because lack of press freedoms can also lead to channels becoming partisan. In India, faced with declining freedom of the press, many unbiased channels have also acquired a pro-BJP bend. The obvious reason is that it is much simpler to report on something that will bode well with the government and that they will not clamp down on.

Reporters Without Borders, the organization that releases an annual report regarding press freedoms, reported that there were six cases of murders of Indian journalists in 2018.

Also significant are countries which claim to be democratic but where the state has supreme control of the press. This elicits the images of China and Russia, whose regimes have strong control of the media. This includes not only the news media but also social media which has become an important means of sharing news. Most of the conventional means of online communication, like Facebook and Twitter, are blocked in China. What is in place are apps like WeChat, where most chat rooms are tapped on by the state. Hence, the source of national and international news in the country is rarely, if ever critical of the Chinese Communist Party since it is run by the same party. This makes any  dissent very hard, as people are either unaware of the problems in the country, or are arrested for spreading seditious messages. Despite it being understood that dissent is the supreme defence of democracy, in countries like India, we observe academics being threatened with charges of sedition if they choose to speak against the ruling party.

Declining Press Freedoms

A global decline in democracies has been noticed around the world, with the victims being civil liberties and democratic institutions like the judiciary. This has been complemented with fainter regard for journalistic integrity, with many journalists reporting unbiased news being criticized for their stand, or being imprisoned for it. This is seen in both authoritarian and democratic nations, as there has been a fall in the desire for living in liberal democracies among citizens.

This has itself seen press freedoms decline as criticism of the government is not appreciated. Besides this, there are many other reasons including “government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists”, writes Freedom House, which strengthens the influence of the government. The government has also given “lucrative state contracts, favorable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information” such that journalists support those in power and not the public. Hence, disregard for honesty, coupled with support by the government, has made honest journalism nonexistent.

Let us take India, the largest democracy in the world with a thriving multiparty system, as an example. Despite such democratic credentials, it has slipped to rank 140 in World Press Freedom Index, below notoriously repressive countries like Afghanistan and repressed countries like Palestine. Reporters Without Borders, the organization that releases an annual report regarding press freedoms, reported that there were 6 cases of murders of Indian journalists in 2018. More specifically, it wrote, “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.” This is followed by hate campaigns on social media to dissuade critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from speaking up against him. It further explains that criminal prosecutions are used to gag journalists under Section 124a of the IPC, blaming them for sedition. Consequently, self-censorship is employed by most.

Woman journalists have faced the worst cruelty by far. Names of many females who were harassed as journalists have come up in the #MeToo movement. Not only this, but many have received rape threats, being called “prostitutes” and harassed online. “There is no doubt that women are targeted in a way that men just are not,” said Barkha Dutt, a journalist threatened with rape on her criticism of BJP. Similarly, Sindhu Sooryakumar of Asianet News TV had her number spread on WhatsApp by her adversaries who requested others to harass her. She received over 2,000 calls threatening her and calling her a “prostitute”.

The reportage on Kashmir is a case in point. Since the clampdown on internet services in the region on August 5, there has been a trickle of authentic news from the valley. While state-controlled media has claimed there is normalcy, videos by international newspapers like The New York Times seem to show a different reality of unrest. Journalists have not been allowed in the valley, and those indigenous to the region are harassed and their reports severely censored before being published. The Indian news media has acted as a mouthpiece to the government rhetoric, celebrating this “nationalist move” by the centre.

All this can be attributed to a loss in the vitality of honest journalism as it was long seen as the agent of the left. There has been a systematic disassembly of this “biased” media and its reconstruction as a new institution in the last five years. Since there is also such high self-censorship, many journalists are simply unable to publish anything opposing the government. Those who dare do so, like NDTV, are indicted for false charges.

Where Does This Lead?

Curtailed press freedoms, however unfortunate, are not the only reality of the media today. Newshour debates have become intolerable sources of “knowledge”. Besides being biased, they are notoriously uncourtly. There is a lack of regard for the views of adversaries who are simply screamed at to prove a point, making such debates an unfathomable show of fabricated knowledge and contempt. Such an absence of basic courtesies is legitimized by the news media. It is logically true that if such behavior is portrayed on national debates, then it will be accepted and learned by those watching these debates. It would not be a misdemeanor to say that this could be responsible for, in the long run, increasing cases of road rage and other violent acts as what would be valued in public discourse would be contempt for others, and not respect for their views.

Ravish Kumar, in his speech as the winner of Ramon Magsaysay award of 2019, said, “Indian media is in a state of crisis, which isn’t accidental or random, but structural.” Such a state of crisis has been warranted by the government, and strong forces need to be employed to break away from this tradition. It must be ensured by each individual to cross-check the information they are encountering. A serious shift from dependance on sources of biased news must be adopted to condemn the channels which tarnish the name of honest journalism. Once the news channels realize the errors of their ways, there can be a possible, positive shift in their reportage on issues.

It must be ensured that our country upholds the fourth pillar of democracy and treats it as a sacrosanct institution that cannot be corrupted. Once the people start blindly believing what the state and media collectively say, they will lose the ability to differentiate between what is right and wrong. For people to become sheep uncritically following a herd is the most detrimental affair that can take place in a democracy.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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