Freedom, huh!

The World Press Freedom Index 2017 comes as a shock to all who boast of inhabiting the world’s largest democracy. Incredible it may seem, but the freedom of the Indian media has been muzzled more during the last year. In effect, the country has been ranked 136 among 180 nations vis-à-vis Press freedom — three positions higher compared with 2016.

According to the report, Press freedom has dwindled across the entire Indian subcontinent. For instance, our immediate neighbour Pakistan has been ranked 139 — three positions higher than last year, while Bangladesh is positioned at 146 and Sri Lanka at 141. Interestingly, the Press in the tiny Himalayan nations Nepal and Bhutan enjoys more freedom compared with India, as Nepal and Bhutan have been ranked 100 and 84 respectively in the index.

The steady decline in India’s record of freedom of Press has been attributed to ‘threat from the present dispensation’s nationalism’. The past year witnessed an ominous growth of self-censorship in the mainstream media, with extreme right wing nationalists preventing healthy national debates on government policies by gagging all opposing views.

These so-called ‘nationalists’ are known to be targeting journalists across the country, to the extent of threatening them with physical reprisals on social media. In some cases, journalists refusing to toe their line or critical of government actions are being subjected to prosecutions under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, Sedition, which is punishable with life imprisonment.

While there has been no instance of any journalist being imprisoned for sedition, yet the threat is enough to scare the media into not only self-censorship but also subservience. The Assistant Solicitor General of Guwahati and some BJP members registered police complaints against independent journalist Neha Dixit for her investigative story “Operation Babylift”, wherein she exposed details of how some saffron outfits were engaged in trafficking minor tribal girls from bordering districts of Assam to Punjab and Gujarat on the pretext of giving them employment. Earlier this year, freelance journalist Sandhya Ravishankar from Tamil Nadu was harassed and hounded by sand mafia and the local administration for exposing rampant corruption in a four part series.

Bastar journalist Santhosh Yadav was, however, not as fortunate as Neha and Sandhya — both award-winning journalists. He was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act and Arms Act in February 2015 for allegedly harbouring Maoists. His only fault was exposing the alleged harassment of local tribals by security forces for information regarding the ultras’ movements in the region. Subsequently, he was released on bail in February 2017 following the intervention of the Supreme Court. Similarly, Malini Subramanium was forced to pack her bags and leave Bastar this year for her relentless stories on fake Maoist surrenders, arrest of journalists and tribal protests against alleged atrocities.

When threats of physical reprisals and prosecution fail to deliver the desired results, the next step is physical assault. The incumbent government has itself acknowledged in a reply to a question in Lok Sabha that as many as 142 journalists were attacked at various places in the country during 2014-2015. On the other hand, mere 36 people have been arrested in connection with these incidents. More recently, videos of lawyers attacking journalists at the Patiala Court House in Delhi and Delhi University student union leaders assaulting media persons at the Ramjas College went viral on the social media, but no action was initiated either against the erring lawyers or the student leaders.

The increasing incidences of attacks on the media and the failure on the part of authorities to check such crimes clearly manifest our present rulers’ outlook on the Press. This was one part of the story where media persons have been threatened and coerced into submission. There is, however, a much larger danger that is not only looming but has already embedded itself very forcefully on the Indian media scenario. This danger is of mergers and acquisitions.

Very specific large business corporates are methodically buying and gobbling up media houses. It has been noticeable for the past few years and the process is still in motion. With publications such as Mint to most TV channels, the acquisitions are truly curtailing freedom of Press. By Press, it should not be misunderstood as only print. While print still enjoys a fair amount of credibility and some freedom, albeit with grave risks, the electronic media has consciously somersaulted into the ruling arena.

This danger is not temporary in nature. In a democracy, individual leaders and specific political parties will come and go from positions of power. However, corporates will have constant and ever growing need to cosy up with whosoever comes to power. This will entail the loss of media freedom not only for a specific time. This loss for India seems like it will last very long.

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