The past few days have been fraught with news articles and opinion pieces on the Indian media and how the government is dealing with the country’s journalists. From Arnab Goswami of Republic TV to Kashmiri journalists like Masrat Zahra and Peerzada Ashiq; there has been a lot of virtual hullabaloo amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arnab Goswami announced his resignation from the Editors Guild of India on a live TV show; Masrat Zahra, who is an independent photojournalist, has been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for a social media post, deeming her to be an ‘anti-national‘, and an FIR has been filed against Peerzada Ashiq who works with the Hindu for a particular news item which was eventually proved inaccurate.
Terming someone as anti-national has become a part of the Indian narrative which hit out on people who agree to disagree, but this is a dangerous precedent!
The moment Arnab announced his resignation, the hashtag ‘Editors ‘guilt’ of India’ started trending on Twitter with views from people on all sides of the political spectrum. The Editors Guild of India had issued a statement on April 21, 2020, expressing shock and concern in the manner in which law enforcement agencies in Jammu and Kashmir have used prevailing laws against the Kashmiri journalists.
It is the same Editors Guild of India, (from which Arnab resigned) that issued another statement on April 23, 2020, condemning the physical attack against senior editors of Republic TV channel.
The latest row has been the interrogation of Arnab by the Mumbai Police after several FIRs had been lodged against him from across the country for provocative statements and allegedly defaming Sonia Gandhi.
But, the Supreme Court (the bench comprising Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice MR Shah) has given protection from arrest for three weeks (starting from April 24 2020) to the Republic TV editor-in-chief. Consequently, the SC has also ordered the Mumbai Police to give protection to his Republic TV office.
There have been popular opinions on the web, regarding the setting of priorities amidst a global pandemic when there is a clear health emergency. To me, it seems like the laws don’t seem to treat people equally nor do our healthcare systems! But the virus surely has been equitable and accessible across the globe compelling people to run amok!
The migrants are still in a state of helter-skelter with hardly any meals to eat or water to drink, barely surviving on all the ‘daan’ and donations that they receive on their walk back home! Yet, their anxious resolve to reach the destination is much calmer than the anxiety levels of an urban Indian’s daily quest to complete an official task while they are working from the comfort of their homes. There is disparity everywhere. In between all of this, the creation of fake news continues through WhatsApp forwards and modern-day TV newsroom commotion.
A very important report was released on April 21, 2020, amidst the pandemic and the great Indian media circus, i.e., the 2020 World Press Freedom Index produced by ‘Reporters without Borders’. This report helps the world understand where a country stands when it comes to press freedom and the perks and role of media in democratic and non-democratic setups.
180 countries have been assessed and they are placed in five geographic categories, namely, Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe-Central Asia and Middle-East-North Africa. India is assessed under the Asia-Pacific region and this year we have slipped two ranks below to 142 from 140 in comparison to the 2019 report. In 2018, India ranked 138 in the index. Clearly, the fourth pillar of our democracy is reeling under a crisis. Norway has been ranked 1 and North Korea has been ranked 180 in the said index. China, on the other hand, is placed at 177.
The rank has gone down despite no murders of journalists, yet stringent and regressive measures have been followed when it comes to mobile internet shutdowns for days and months together in Kashmir post the abrogation of Article 370 or the anti-CAA protests in the North-East and elsewhere. I have been subject to mobile internet lockdown for close to 15 days, apart from the curfew imposed during my stay in Shillong in 2019. It surely feels like hell!
According to the website of ‘Reporters Without Borders’, 87 questions are asked across 20 languages as per the methodology used to rank countries on the index. It is a mix of qualitative and quantitative data to calculate the degree of freedom. The criteria evaluated in the questionnaire (done through online surveys) include pluralism, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information. It also caters to data on abuses and violence against journalists and media outlets.
A lot of media trials happen through our TV channel debates remain ignorant towards pertinent questions on healthcare systems, upgrading women safety, education, and more. The report also talks about virulent hate campaigns especially against women journalists and reporters being waged on social media platforms and invoking Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code to prosecute journalists who question the accountability of the higher authorities.
Women journalists getting trolled, receiving rape and death threats has somehow become a new normal. Most of the cyber attacks on women are filled with high doses of everyday sexism, racism and blatant abuses from the colloquial dictionary.
The report further generates a ‘Press Freedom Map’ to give a visual overview as to how each country is performing in the index. The colour categories are: white for good, yellow for fairly good, orange for problematic, red for bad and black for very bad. The detail on how the scores are calculated for each country is clearly given in the website along with the relevant mathematical formulae.
In the Press Freedom map, India has bagged a score of 45.33 and lies in the red zone. The details of the comparison with other South Asian countries can be seen here:
With the ongoing pandemic, access to the kind of information needed by the citizens of this country is quite less. On the other hand, independent media houses and citizen journalists are trying very hard to get all of us the information that the mainstream media would constantly deprive us of, time and again.
Taking a cue from the popular phrase/line and applying it in the present day media crisis–”We all are in this together and this too shall pass. But till then stay home. Stay safe.”