Kalpana Sharma

According to the 2023 report of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index fell from 150 out of 180 countries to 161, a drop of 11 points within one year. What does this noticeable decline mean on the ground, in how media and journalists function, and what readers and viewers are served as news? And what are the actions of the government that have contributed to this decline?

You could argue, as does the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that such rankings mean nothing, that they are part of an agenda of people outside the country to denigrate India’s democratic credentials.

Yet, even if you do not give a number, or a rank, to declining press freedom, that it has been on a downward spiral for some time is evident to all except those who choose not to accept it.

To understand the reasons for this decline, one must examine not just the actions of the government that have contributed to it but the intent behind specific actions.

BBC ban

The year began with the government banning part one of the BBC’s documentary series Modi’s India.

This episode focussed on Modi’s role during the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. It was telecast on the BBC Two channel on January 17 and could only be viewed by people in the UK. Yet, given the nature of the Internet, within days it was available on several social media platforms.

Jammu and Kashmir police conducting searches at a journalist’s residence in Srinagar, on November 19, 2022. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Typically, the Modi government dismissed it as a “propaganda” exercise, yet it went out of its way to ensure that all videos on platforms like YouTube were taken down. It was able to do this by using the emergency provisions of the Information Technology (IT) Act, which allows the government to ask these platforms to remove content that affects the “unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India”. It also sent tax officials to the BBC’s Delhi office, accusing the company of tax evasion.

The clear message from these actions was that the government was not going to sit back and permit any media, foreign or Indian, to go beyond a point in questioning or being critical of government policies or the Prime Minister. The tone was set for what was to follow the rest of the year.

Warishe’s murder

Less than a month after the BBC episode, a journalist was killed in Maharashtra. His death was not linked directly to the Central government, but it reminded us of the hazards journalists working in rural areas or small towns face daily, with little recourse to protection or justice. Shashikant Warishe’s death in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district was an unfortunate illustration of this reality. On February 6, Warishe was waiting at a petrol pump with his two-wheeler. He had recently done a series for the Marathi newspaper Mahanagari Times exposing a powerful local politician. As he waited, an SUV came at full speed and rammed him, killing him. The vehicle’s owner was allegedly the same person Warishe had been writing about.

The vulnerability of journalists like Warishe is an ongoing story, sometimes not even told because they do not have the visibility of journalists working for big media houses. These men and women are the collectors and feeders of news from parts of India that are otherwise readily forgotten by the mainstream media.

“The state of the media in Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 remains an example of how a vibrant and lively local media can be squashed into submission through a combination of threats, including arrests, and undermining of economic support.”

Similarly, journalists working in conflict areas like Kashmir, the north-eastern region, and Bastar are vulnerable to threats from the state and from non-state actors. They tread a fine line between these two, as falling foul of either could lead to surveillance and incarceration or death. The fate of several journalists in Kashmir, including 35-year-old Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, an online magazine, illustrates this challenge.

Situation in Kashmir

Shah was arrested on February 2, 2022, and the police filed four cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against him. Despite being granted bail by a lower court in three cases, he continued to languish in jail until November 17, when the Jammu and Kashmir High Court granted him bail in the fourth case.

In a moving interview to Betwa Sharma (editor of online portal Article 14) after his release, Shah spoke about what the 21 months in jail had done to him. “Every hour was a struggle. Every breath was a battle. Every day was like a mighty hilltop. It is like you are chained to a stone that has been thrown into the sea and going down. You are trying to swim but can’t get out because you are tied to a stone. It was very heavy.”

When he was in jail, his colleagues struggled to keep the website alive. But the government moved again and blocked the server on which it was hosted. Thus, the combination of arrest and punitive actions worked to silence one of the few voices that were still reporting on the reality of life in Kashmir.

The state of the media in Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, remains an example of how a vibrant and lively local media can be squashed into submission through a combination of threats, including arrests, and undermining of economic support. Local newspapers dependent on government advertising, and with offices in premises controlled by the government, had little option but to give in and toe the official line or face closure. In addition, the government devised a media policy that was nothing less than censorship by other means.

The key section in that policy, which was revised in 2020, empowers a government department to “examine the content of the print, electronic and other forms of media for fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities”. If it concludes that any media has indulged in any of these, it can stop release of advertisements and charge such publications under existing laws relating to inciting violence, questioning “sovereignty and integrity of India”, or inciting hatred or disturbing communal harmony. The section also states that matters involving “fake” news will be shared with the security agencies.

The intent in this section could not be clearer: monitor, threaten, deprive, and, if needed, arrest journalists and publishers who attempt to speak out.

The experience of the media in Kashmir might not be replicated to the same extent in the rest of the country, but the government already has a plan to push through something similar for the entire nation through the IT Rules that were introduced in 2021.

Later, on April 6, 2023, the government issued a gazette notification that stipulated that social media intermediaries, like Facebook, for example, should “not publish, share, or host fake, false, or misleading information in respect of any business of the Central government”. The mechanism for determining “fake” news would be a fact-checking unit of the government.

“The government crackdown on NewsClick in October sent a message to other independent digital platforms that they are being watched and that the government will not hesitate to go after them.”

Several media organisations objected strongly to this provision and filed petitions against it before the Bombay High Court, which has said that it is likely to pronounce a verdict on January 5, 2024.

But the very fact that the government came up with such a provision exposes its determination to find ways to control criticism of its actions and policies on independent digital news platforms. Today, space for such critical writing and investigative journalism is almost exclusively on such platforms. If social media intermediaries are stopped from distributing their content, the outcome will be no different from direct censorship.
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