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May 3, 2021, 10:09 a.m.

As Covid-19 spreads, India’s press freedom is shrinking

Here’s what Modi can do if he really wants to change India’s image of being a “dangerous place for journalists.”

The world is watching in horror as Covid-19 overwhelms hospitals in India. It is hard to look away as images of open air crematoriums and makeshift funeral pyres in public parks in the nation’s capital flicker across our screens.

It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the public health calamity unfolding in India as the nation of 1.4 billion people fights what seems like a losing battle against the virus. But did it have to be this way?

Answering that question is the responsibility of the free press of the world’s largest democracy. They have the unenviable task of writing the first draft of this wretched chapter in the nation’s history. They shoulder the burden of speaking truth to power — recording the tales of colossal missteps like not preparing for a second wave, calling out the political hubris in allowing massive campaign rallies, and criminal negligence that led to severe shortages of essential hospital supplies like oxygen.

A small group of independent news outlets are doing their best to capture the nation’s descent into Covid hell, but they’re too few and too weak to take on the forces trying to squash dissent. You won’t find the urgent, hard-hitting stories in the country’s mainstream media. Ever since a public image–conscious Bharatiya Janata Party was re-elected in 2019, there has been a steady erosion in the freedom of press. The democratically elected government that failed to protect its citizens has been going out of its way to muzzle journalists who expose its incompetence.

The arrest and detention of journalist Siddique Kappan is an extreme instance of that. Kappan was on his way to Uttar Pradesh to report on the gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman whose body was hastily buried by the local police. He was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and has been held without bail since October 2020.

It’s not just the government, though; there’s also the problem of media ownership. India’s largest media outlets are owned by the country’s wealthiest industrialists, who take great care to not upset a government that has the power to unleash a politically motivated scrutiny of their non-media businesses. Then there’s the self-censorship by large media houses dependent on government and political ads, especially after the pandemic decimated corporate advertising.

Last week, as Covid-19 wreaked mayhem across the nation, Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index came out. India was at 142, out of 180 nations.

The nonprofit called India “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.” At least four Indian journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2020. Equally alarming, the group said, is the fact that journalists are “exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.”

Who’s to blame for that climate of fear? “Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure has increased on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line,” the researchers behind the Press Freedom Index wrote. Under Modi, police in multiple states, especially those ruled by BJP or its allies, have filed criminal cases against journalists for writing stories critical of the government or its political leaders. Often these cases drag on for months or even years under the guise of “investigation” and act as a warning for other journalists.

Modi, who works hard to cultivate the image of India as an emerging global power, didn’t like that India was ranked so low in the Press Freedom Index. He set up a panel of experts to identify ways to improve India’s standing. He even sent the Indian ambassador in France to lobby Reporters Without Borders in a bid to improve the ranking. After a year, and a few meetings, the expert panel concluded that the real issue is not the state of press freedom in India but “Western bias.”

At least one member of the expert panel, prominent journalist P Sainath, disagreed with that assessment, and said as much in a dissenting note.

So if Modi wants to change India’s image, what should he do?

Certainly not sending diplomats after foreign newspapers for laying the blame for the current Covid situation in India squarely at Modi’s door.

Instead of engaging in a “three-pronged communication strategy to actively change the public image of the country,” as the expert panel recommended, Sainath suggested the government start with acknowledging the serious crisis in the freedom of expression in the country, and the “state of emergency” faced by journalists.

Even better, Sainath offered, the government can support journalists by dropping the cases filed against them across the country. Doing that, Reporters Without Borders’ Asia Pacific director Daniel Bastard said, might even lead to a better ranking on the press freedom index.

“For a couple of years, the number of [cases] filed against journalists by members of the BJP or BJP-led regional and local government has sharply increased, which is tantamount to intimidation and harassment,” Bastard said. “Reversing this tendency would help improve India’s score in the Index.”

And if Modi is earnest about improving press freedom in India, he can create laws that hold police accountable for filing trumped-up charges against journalists for doing their jobs. In fact, Sainath has a whole list of recommendations for the government to help journalists do their job without fear of repercussions. But that is all for Modi and his administration to consider. What can the rest of the world do?

A good place to start would be supporting the pockets of independent media in India. The mainstream media may not be willing or able to do its job, but a few small but independent newsrooms in India are doing their best to speak truth to power and keep citizens informed as the virus continues its march across the nation. The journalists at the relatively recent digital upstarts like The Wire, The Print, Scroll.in, The News Minute, Article 14, and Alt News are on the frontline of resistance against India’s slide toward authoritarianism under Modi.

It’s not just media that’s at risk in India. The very foundations of democracy are in peril, according to political researchers at the V-Dem Institute in Sweden. “India is on the verge of losing its status as a democracy due to the severely shrinking of space for the media, civil society, and the opposition under Prime Minister Modi’s government,” the group’s latest report on the state of the world’s democracies warned.

In India, the media’s ability to pursue truth and tell it without fear is a matter of life and death. A government that allows massive political rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and encourages a religious festival attended by a million people in the middle of a global pandemic, has to answer for the avoidable deaths. With the second surge, nearly 3,000 Indians are dying every day, some outside hospitals, some in their homes, and some on the streets. Let’s let a free press shine a bright light on that.

Lison Joseph is a senior editor at The GroundTruth Project, home to Report for America and Report for the World, which partners with Scroll.in. He has worked as a reporter and editor in leading Indian newsrooms including The Times of India, The Economic Times, and Mint, and was an editor at The Dallas Morning News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Photo of temperature checks in India in May 2020 by Gwydion M. Williams used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 3, 2021, 10:09 a.m.
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