Updated: Apr 13, 2022
Author: Abhirami Boyina
"Every Threat Against a Journalist is a threat against your freedom" -UNESCO
The World Press Freedom Index, a report published every year by an NGO based in France, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media watchdog is an important indicator for press freedom and safety of journalists across the world. While, in one sense, it is not a fool proof, all-inclusive report that ranks countries based on how safe it is for journalists. In another sense, the factors considered to make such a ranking are inclusive; they include categories such as pluralism, media independence, transparency, infrastructure, abuses, etc. It is only fitting to consider the outcome of such a compilation to get a decent, if not a complete, picture of where a country stands in terms of press freedom. India ranked in the 142nd position among 180 countries. In the 140th position is Myanmar, which has been seized by a military coup, since February last year and the country has been in a state of civil war ever since. The country ranked right before India, Eswatini, a “landlocked country in South Africa” a nation that is governed by an absolute monarchy. India has ranked after countries with absolutist regimes and monarchies despite being a democracy; a type of government that is considered to be the most conducive for press freedom. The report notes that India is among the most unsafe nations for journalists who are “trying to do their job properly”
The Centre, whereas, rejected India's rank in the World Press Freedom Index. The government's rejection of the issue is not only surprising but to say the least, an oversimplification. The government cited "questionable methodology, lack of transparency and the lack of a clear definition of press freedom" as reasons for rejecting its rank. At least (the latter) two of these reasons given by the government can be disproven on account of not just subjectivity but also because of the fact that RSF has been immensely clear about methodology, the definition, the categories and indicators, how the scores are calculated and even the exact questionnaire they used is evident on the RSF website. The government also cites the reason of "small sample size" which is difficult to verify. The reasons the government rejects the outcome it seems, is rather arbitrary, especially when the RSF has ensured transparency on every account. Indeed, one has to view this move by the government with a critical eye because the report clearly made an impact. It made an impact in terms of how journalists are treated in India, and this impact is transnational and brings the world's attention to the atrocities committed against journalists.
Additionally, the Global Impunity Index, published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), another media watchdog, reported that India stands in the 12th place among 12 countries. The index represents a list of (12) countries where the maximum number of journalist murders have been unsolved. "Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included in the index." In its essence, the index only includes nations where five or more journalists were killed in "retaliation" to their work, particularly unresolved cases. While India occupies the last place, India has 20 unsolved murders recorded from September 2011 to August 2021. To contextualise these numbers, the popular case of the Bangalore based journalist Gauri Lankesh's murder can be taken into account. Almost five years since the incident happened, and there are no convictions yet. Further, according to the CPJ report, 41 journalists have been murdered in India from 1997 to 2021. Murder is the ultimate form of censorship. Keeping these figures in mind, one can understand that the government needs to be held accountable for the murder of all these journalists because the protection of the fourth estate is the only way to keep a democracy functioning. There is a pattern if one looks close enough to take into account when one looks at the journalists in India who are harassed or murdered. This particularly applies to journalists who are outspoken and left-leaning, Kashmiri journalists, and women and female journalists. The last category of women journalists are particularly targeted if they are ones with a considerable audience (on Twitter or otherwise) and/ or if they are outspoken Muslim women journalists. This pattern is not a new or an original finding by any means, it only reveals the existing biases exasperated by the government's silence over the abuse of minorities.
Additionally, it seems to be that the "grip on the media" has been stronger since the coming of the Modi government. It has to be noted and in fact, understood that the violence against an opposing view, an "anti-national" view is absorbed with much hate by the citizens themselves. The case of arrests of journalists and the targeting of newspapers for an opposing point of view (anti-government) in India is concerning to say the least. A three-member Fact-Finding Committee of the Press Council of India, a self-regulatory watchdog of the press, noted that extensive restrictions are being placed on the administration and Kashmir journalists. It recommended, "ending intimidation and detention of journalists and setting up of a three-way Media Advisory Committee to encourage dialogue among stakeholders." Newslaundry, a reader-supported, independent news media organisation, noted an emerging pattern in how Kashmiri journalists are targeted and intimidated. This finding came about after the arrest of Fawad Shah, the editor of the Kashmir Walla newspaper. These journalists are usually arrested under rather broad, non-transparent charges, under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and/ or the Public Safety Act. The charges usually have terms like "anti-national leanings", which is vague. While getting into the details of the Fawad Shah case is absolutely essential, it is beyond the scope of this article to explain the details of the case. However, Shah was arrested for "uploading anti-national content." This content was a testimonial by a Pulwama based family's claim that their son was unfairly killed in an encounter because he was innocent. Later the question of the authenticity of the reports came up, which is fair, but all Kashmir Walla did was publish the report on the initial claims of the family. The newspaper was targeted for doing their job.
They are growing instances of citizens themselves harassing journalists when they voice an unpopular opinion. There seems to be a pattern here as well; a simple exercise will help one understand the "pattern" I am referring to. Every time a woman and/ or a female journalist comments on an issue of national importance, expressing an opposing point of view or finding fault with the government's intentions, the move is met with sexist and misogynistic comments, sometimes going to the extent of death and rape threats. I would urge the reader to try this exercise and view the comments section of a tweet or an Instagram post; when a woman journalist voices an unpopular opinion, it is often flooded with misogynistic comments. While I am aware that there are many commenters who are trying to meaningfully engage with the issue, and that is amicable, but resorting to intimidation, threatening and bullying by fellow citizens puts the work that these journalists do in jeopardy. This particular assertion can be explained by the recent case of the Bulli Bai app. Real Muslim women were essentially auctioned off on the app. All the women placed for auction on the app were Muslim
women who had an opinion, an opinion that, more often than not, opposed the government's actions. This application on GitHub was developed by a fellow citizen/s for the purpose of mere humiliation. Some of them were outspoken journalists like Rana Ayyub.
The case of Rana Ayyub’s journalism in India is one such examples where “judicial harassment” is used as a tactic to stop a network or an individual from functioning because they (in this case the government) resort to measures like freezing bank accounts and assets. The journalist was allegedly involved in a “money laundering” probe. The UN in Geneva in February this year tweeted regarding Rana Ayyub’s bleak situation in India and called for the stop of all judicial, misogynistic and sectarian harassment. Something similar occurred in 2020 with the Amnesty International office in India. Amnesty International released reports on the human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir and the riots in Northeast Delhi in 2020. Shortly after, the organisation’s bank accounts were frozen by the Enforcement Directorate on the alleged charges of “money laundering.” Soon after the organisation was forced to shut all operations in India because there were no funds to run the organisation. While the organisation is not technically a news-media organisation, the pattern is similar to what is happening with Rana Ayyub presently. Hence, it can be said that journalists are unsafe in India. But, one is more unsafe depending on their identity marker, political standing, gender, and most importantly, how opposed one is to the government's intentions and actions. The unfortunate nature of this assertion is that this kind of hate, bigotry and violence that is exerted against journalists is not just state-controlled, even if it is difficult to prove. But, it is also exerted by fellow Indian citizens, which makes the life of a journalist an even more dangerous one.