The World Press Freedom Day passed off yesterday, with figure of India's rank in media freedom falling fast. The International Press Institute (IPI) points out that exessive government curbs and suppression stand in the way of independent functioning of the media. 'Freedom House', the US-based NGO, also bring out figures about press freedom worsening in India: India's score has fallen by an unprecedented four points to touch 71.
Among the 25 largest democratic countries, the biggest drop was recorded in India. There are other statistics also pointing at the decline in standards of media freedom, as in other freedoms as well. The global body, Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) highlights in special the media muzzling in Kashmir. The respected international organisation, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), which monitors at a global level governmental onslaughts on media freedom, brings out annual reports after studying the conditions in 180 countries. In their press freedom report this year, India's score has slipped for a fifth consecutive time. This series of drop in rating happened after Narendra Modi government took office. In 2016, our rank was 133 and now in 2020 that has fallen to 142. International newspapers and media observers are more or less united in pointing out the weakening of India's media freedom. This deterioration is perceived also as a reflection of the weakening of democracy in the country. And now with the Covid crisis, this inherent anti-democratic plank of the regime, has assumed more ominous dimensions.
An aspect mentioned in particular by IPI is the attempts to cover up the failures of the government by muzzling the voices of those who disagree and by roping in pliant media entities. A recent attempt by the government to force media to publish only the government version about Covid, ended without much success. Not for nothing did prime minister Modi call a select group of media owners just before the lockdown declaratioin and asked them to take care to carry only positive news during the Covid period. There have also been instances of directly preventing – and penalising - independent reporting. As IPI's deputy director Scott Griffen said, " Independent journalism is an essential partner in protecting public health. We urge the Indian authorities to ensure that all journalists are able to do their job of informing the public at this critical time.” But a case was filed against 'The Wire' editor Siddharth Varadarajan for pointing out that Uttar Pradesh chief minister violated safe distance rules. When the prime minister declared lockdown without giving sufficient notice, and even without taking the media into confidence, it was the poor sections who were at the receing end of untold misery. But then those who report about this hardship are being hounded. The government took action against Public TV of Bengaluru for discussing the need for delivering cash to those who had no income. The tendency of taking action in the name of publishing news against the government, prevails in the states also. For bringing to the attention of authoritites the unhygienic methods of quarantine, journalist in Andaman Zubair Ahmed was arrested. When it comes to Kashmir, such repression breaks all boundaries of democracy and human rights. The latest instances are of slapping UAPA provisions on photo journalist Masrat Zahra and news reporter Peerzada Ashiq. In fact, examples abound including those from China, about how attempts to block true reports would be harmful, especially during the time of pandemic.
The fact of the matter is that the lockdown declaration in India, totally lacking in transparency, made an adverse effect. A group of ativists are gathering data about the number of deaths owing to the governmental measures across the country. At least over three hundred people have lost lives due to hunger, walking long distances and by suicide - all because of the unplanned nature of lockdown. Unrecorded deaths may number many more of this. Apart from the bungling in imposing lockdown, even now it is doubtful whether the central government has a clear exit strategy. Although it is essential to conduct extensive testing during lockdown as a run up to its withdrawal, the testing rate in India is still very low. Independent media are required to correct governments and to create awareness among the people. But unfortunately, even the Covid crisis is being used as an excuse to kill media freedom. The slogan of this year's Press Freedom Day is 'Journalism without fear or favour'. But the distance to that goal is increasing in the country. It was with this in mind that Amartya Sen lamented "As a proud Indian, I have to hang my head in shame."