Herald View: Is the Indian press now effectively muzzled?

India's ignominious slide to #161 of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index rankings suggest the Fourth Estate has been reduced to a watchdog with neither bark nor bite

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: UNESCO)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: UNESCO)

Herald View

India’s media fraternity has shown no shock or surprise at the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, which ranks India at #161 of 180 countries. This is the lowest in 20 years, and down 11 notches from even last year (when we were placed at #150), but those damning statistics are not likely to furrow many brows. Our press is so free that it has either ignored the news or buried the information somewhere you are not likely to notice it. It certainly isn’t something for prime time television. Even those of us who care for seemingly anachronistic values such as press freedom are so inured to the current state of affairs, to the post-truth reality of this passage of our political life that we may just shrug our shoulders.

Our thin-skinned government does still care, it seems—not so much about what you and I make of it here in India but what the world outside thinks. It has made no secret of its outrage over the latest rankings, on embarrassing details like India being placed lower than even Afghanistan (coming in at #152), Pakistan (#150) and Sri Lanka (#135). But, hooray, we are still better off than Bangladesh (#163)! S. Jaishankar, our external affairs minister, found the index "strange" and declared that the Indian press is actually quite "uncontrollable". The "ranking industry", he declared, is playing mind games and the rankings themselves are the result of a "Western bias". You’ve heard that before.

The government and its apologists have even questioned the methodology and argued that the conclusions are based on insufficient data. On the 'safety of journalists', India has an even more dubious honour of being placed among the bottom 10 countries. For critics of the survey, its methodology and Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), which conducts the survey (the 2023 iteration is its 21st edition), these findings lack credibility because the RSF "does not have the resources to study and compare the situation in 180 countries". To conclude that journalists are not safe in India "just because" a few journalists in India have been killed or are under detention is wrong, they argue. The rankings have drawn flak from these quarters also because the RSF survey admits the construct of a lapdog mainstream media (a.k.a. 'Godi Media'), eager to do the bidding of its political masters. It takes note of the stranglehold a few oligarchs exercise on Indian media, with the patronage of the government of the day.

You can question the rankings, the methodology or the conclusions of the RSF report, you can quibble about the details, but the capitulation of mainstream media is not really a debatable proposition—it’s a bald fact. You cannot conscientiously disagree that media in India has willy-nilly abdicated its watchdog role, that it does not ‘speak truth to power’ any more, because it has been cowed, converted or gagged. It does not have the stomach to fight the onslaught of the present government, which has gone about its project of subjugating media and crushing voices of dissent more systematically and ruthlessly than any (supposedly) democratically elected government in history.

Indian media does not need the World Press Freedom Index or the RSF to tell them how bad the situation is on the ground. The vanishing tribe of journalists who believe in reporting what they see 'without fear or favour' should expect to be stopped at every turn, to be spied upon, to be intimidated, or risk jail or worse. So journalists are now wary of visiting hotspots; vocal critics of the government find themselves on the 'no fly list'; internet shutdowns are routine and part of the SOP (standard operating procedure) to keep out bad news. Pliant journalists, on the other hand, the ones who are happy to be the stenographers of their political bosses, are rewarded with access and professional privileges—and the chosen few may even be considered for awards, sinecures and other 'benefits'.

This government will stop at nothing to gag criticism and dissent. This was made even more plain last month with the new amendment to the IT Rules, which vests the government-run Press Information Bureau (PIB) with powers to order digital platforms to take down any news relating to the government it decides is false. No room for inquiries or appeals either. In other words, on all matters related to the government, the government decides if the information is true. That’s how free the press is in India today.

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