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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 4 MAY, 2017

Indian Media Under Threat From "Radical Nationalists": Reporters Without Borders Report


NEW DELHI: Of course, to prove a point or negate one, it is always easy to dismiss reports by questioning the credibility of organisations. But sometimes this flies in the face of facts and popular consensus, in this case the reference being to Reporters Without Borders, a global organisation that has been bringing out annual reports on the ranking of the media in countries around the world with freedom being the calculator.

India, to put it mildly, has been faring badly as a democracy that nurtures a free, vibrant press--- more so during the last several years spanning the last Congress and the current BJP governments. It is now positioned 136 in 180 countries ---slipping three notches from the 2016 figures where it was ranked 133---falling below Afghanistan, Palestine and Burma in the World Press Freedom Index. Most of the recognised democracies are ranked within 1-50 by the survey, with India really scraping the bottom of the freedom for media barrel.

RSF in its note accompanying the ranking for India, that is 136 in the World Press Freedom Index has stated the following:

Threat from Modi’s nationalism

With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship. The government has also introduced new foreign funding regulations to limit international influence. Coverage of regions that the authorities regard as sensitive, such as Kashmir, continues to be very difficult, and there are no protective mechanisms. On the first day of a wave of protests in Kashmir in July 2016, the Internet was cut by the military and was often interrupted thereafter to prevent communication between protesters and prevent coverage by the media and citizen journalists. Journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent.

The two points raised by RSF that this article will explore is a) self censorship and b) the smear campaigns being run against journalists, as well as threats and vilification.

Self censorship has been written about in these columns over the past several years, starting even before the Narendra Modi government came to power. The gradual control of the media by money power represented by corporates, political parties, and cronies within the system---also from the mafia and the underworld---has been documented by zealous scribes to some extent. This power allows the governments to control the media through the corporates and others who have started and funded television channels and print newspapers and magazines across the country, as money always needs government to survive and grow. And hence ensures that the media and the journalists within follow the line and the agenda set out by the owners, to benefit the ruling powers in the centre, and the specific states.

This is the primary reason why journalists have been largely reduced to stenographers and pliable allies of power, with the money bags using the intimidating of the ‘hiring and firing’ clauses in the contracts to exercise their will. Television in particlar pays big money to the star anchors, and this along with the ‘celebrity status’ that is inbuilt in the visual medium, ensures that those at the helm of affairs in news channels crawl even before they are asked to bend. Television and of course many of the print newsapers follow the chameleon in changing colours to match a change in government, but in recent times this has been matched with a zeal that is almost unprecedented. In that the reports and the headlines on television reflect anger, war, confict, hate, divisiveness more than the tenets of responsible journalism that find their sanctity in peace, unity, plurality, and of course sobriety.

It is here that a militaristic version of nationalism is being propagated by the media--under directions-- without thought. And this leads directly into the second point, that of smear campaigns run against journalists, and the use of social media to initimidate scribes, threaten them with rape and death, and vilification. This is recognised worldwide by all serious journalistic bodies as one of the worst kind of intimidation, as it places the scribe doing her (his) duty in an environment of fear and terror that many find it difficult to withstand. The message through such initimidation is to stop doing a free and fair job, to follow the agenda of the government of the day, or else….

The Hoot in a recent report has given figures of journalists, particularly those investigating fraud, being targeted and killed. The Editors Guild of India, in a fact finding report last year, reported on how the police and the local authorities were intimidating journalists trying to write about the poor in Bastar trolling them as “Maoists” and issuing active threats to many to get out of the area. Several scribes and columnists have been writing about the abuse they receive from persons claiming allegiance to the present BJP government, for even a 140 character tweet that questions the government. This is all generated to create fear, and to ensure that the journalist thinks again before criticising the order of the day. This is the add on, as trolls and threats on the social media were certainly not used by the Congress government against the media. This is a BJP contribution per se.

Such an environment creates its own censorship, as it seeks to silence the messenger. Some journalists, are intimidated, some are not but the corporates and the money bags running news always succumb with exceptions too more within the ‘rule’ than outside it.

As a result news becomes the casualty as the freedom of expression is seriously compromised. And democracy, without its watch dog, seriously endangered.

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