NEW DELHI: In the backdrop of World Press Freedom Day that was observed last week, it was reported that India’s press freedom ranking had fallen to 150 from 142 last year.
As per Reporters Without Borders, the idea of press freedom is ‘in crisis in the world’s largest democracy’ as an average of three to four reporters are killed every year in India in connection with their work.
Press Freedom Day had been designated by the UN General Assembly as an observance to remind governments across the world of their duties towards preservation of press liberties.
The observance holds significance in today’s political milieu as this year’s theme was Journalism under Digital Siege. It seeks to highlight the ways in which press freedom is compromised, through surveillance and digitally-mediated assaults on members of the press.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has pointed out how Indian authorities are increasingly targeting journalists for their criticism of government policies.
The harassment of the media has assumed frightening proportions with the government levelling trumped up charges involving sedition and counter-terrorism laws against them.
In the Pegasus spyware scandal, the names of 40 Indian journalists were singled out as targets for surveillance, as per a leaked document. The case, which has reached the Supreme Court, has not thrown up any convictions so far.
The government has also used the IT Act and IT Rules of 2021 to silence press personnel critical of the administration.
Blackouts of internet in regions like Jammu and Kashmir is a case in point, where the government justifies such bans to counter terrorist activities. However, journalists are crippled in the absence of communication when news has to be reported.
In April this year, five journalists covering an event organised by nationalist groups in New Delhi, were assaulted.
The Police opened criminal investigations against one reporter charged with inciting hatred through a tweet where he said the event organisers had attacked him on account of his religion.
That is the fulcrum on which such events of increasing ferocity are seesawing.
A few months ago, miscreants had targeted a group of Muslim women journalists and put up their profiles on an app for the purpose of auctioning.
More recently, a woman journalist was barred by the government from flying abroad over a money-laundering case. Sadly, this is just one among hundreds of other instances where journalists are persecuted by fringe groups as well as law enforcement authorities.
In UP, criminal cases have been filed against 66 journalists while 48 reporters have been physically attacked.
A similar narrative is playing out in Jammu and Kashmir where 35 journalists have faced police interrogation and been subjected to raids and physical assault owing to their reportage. And a new media policy specific to the J&K government that was enforced in 2020 gives the authorities extended power to censor news in the region.
Ideally, an observance such as World Press Freedom Day should be treated by members of the media as an acknowledgment of their contribution to the functioning of a healthy democracy.
Unfortunately, owing to interference from various groups, the high ideals envisioned by this line of work risk being blighted in an irrevocable manner. We don’t seek glory, and we don’t seek recognition.
What we need is the liberty to do our jobs sans the threat of coercion or dire consequences. The day that demand is taken care of, we can think about raising a toast to journalists, and freedom of the press.