Amidst A Global Pandemic, Where Does Press Freedom Stand In India?

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.

Journalists Masrat Zahra (L) and Peerzada Ashiq (R).

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.

Arnab Goswami
Arnab Goswami.

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.

World Press Freedom Index 2020

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!

Newspapers, with headlines about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to revoke special status for the disputed Kashmir region, are displayed for sale at a pavement in Ahmedabad, India, August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Methodology

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.”

Featured image for representation only.
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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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