The Press Freedom Crisis in India and Its Implications for Democracy and pluralist society

The alleged situation of the freedom press is a grave concern for India, one of the largest democracy. On May 3, 2023 world press freedom index painted the worst image of India as it slipped to 161st rank out of 180 countries. This is how India lost its pluralistic and secular essence when Narendra Modi came to power. Undoubtedly, India is among the rapidly growing economies and has successfully reformed its infrastructure very well. However, the crucial point is that India is home where different people belong to different religions, sects and communal identities. However, they need transparency and freedom just because their voice would be heard and their rights would address.

It is now a bare truth that the current government suppresses the independent press and is also trying to control the media to secure political objectives. Due to these non-democratic practices, India is the 19th worst performer, where journalists and media are in trouble. Moreover, the Modi regime created hurdles for BBC when they released the documentary “The Modi Question,” which exposes the Gujarat riots in 2002.

Since 2014, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in power. Journalists too critical of the government are targets of harassment and assault campaigns by Modi’s bhakts, his obsessive supporters. Press freedom in India is under threat from several fronts, including political pressure and the threat of physical violence. Physical threats to journalists include police brutality, attacks by political activists, and assassination by criminal gangs or corrupt local politicians. This climate of dread and self-censorship undermines the public’s freedom of the press and democratic discourse. India must safeguard its journalists and uphold its constitutional commitment to free speech.

The Indian government and its allies have exploited the Covid-19 epidemic as cover to go on the attack legally against media outlets that have reported information contrary to the official narrative. Reporters covering strikes and rallies against the government were often jailed without due process. These violations undermined the function of media self-regulatory bodies like the Press Council of India and the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre. Journalists were also subjected to persecution by individuals in authority, who accused them of sedition, criminal defamation, contempt of court, and compromising national security.

The purpose of these allegations was to silence journalists who criticized the government and were labeled anti-national. The government used its influence over the advertising industry to push its narrative and reward supportive media. This led to the emergence of ‘Godi media,’ which combined populism and pro-BJP propaganda. India’s media landscape could have been better because only a few people owned most news outlets, especially at the regional level. The Reliance Industries group, which controlled over 70 media sites with a significant readership, showed this symbiotic connection between the media sector and the Modi administration. Because of these circumstances, India’s media has become less diverse and autonomous.

A remarkable example is the recent purchase of NDTV, one of the leading television networks, by billionaire and known Modi ally Gautam Adani. This purchase ended an independent voice in the mainstream media, already dominated by pro-government releases. All India Radio, which the government owns, also regulates all-news radio stations, leaving little room for alternative sources of information.

The lack of diversity in the Indian media is apparent in its ownership structure and newsrooms. Most top journalists and media executives are upper-caste Hindu males who often disregard or marginalize the opinions and viewpoints of women, minorities, and lower castes. Despite comprising half of the population, women make up less than 15% of participants in prominent evening talk programs. The media content also reflects the prejudices and biases of the dominant groups, such as blaming the Muslim minority for the spread of Covid-19 or supporting the government’s suppression of dissent in IIOJK.

The security of journalists in India is also vital since the country is among the most perilous for reporters worldwide. Every year, three or four journalists are murdered in the line of duty, frequently by criminal organizations or corrupt public officials seeking to paralyze their investigations. Online harassment is also directed at female journalists, mainly if they criticize the government or challenge patriarchal norms. The police also impede press freedom by arresting, detaining, or assaulting journalists who cover anti-government demonstrations or sensitive issues.

The World Press Freedom Index ranks India 156th out of 180 countries for press freedom, which indicates India’s weak performance in this area. This positions the country behind most South Asian neighbors, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. India has had the second-worst performance, after only Bangladesh. India must address these concerns and protect its constitutional guarantee of journalistic freedom.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Abdul Mussawer Safi
Abdul Mussawer Safi is a student of International Relations at the National Defense University, Islamabad.
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