India slips to 161st rank on Press Freedom Index; now in ‘very serious’ category

India performs dismally on Security and Political indicators; report says takeover of NDTV by Gautam Adani “signalled end of pluralism in mainstream media”

World Press Freedom Index 2023, Reporters Without Borders, Reporters Sans Frontières
The report states that the violence against journalists, the politically partisan media, and the concentration of media ownership demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in India | Representative photo: iStock

World Press Freedom Day came as a rude shock to India as it slipped further down the rankings on the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI). India was placed at 161st — down from 150th last year — on a list of 180 countries, with Afghanistan (152) and Pakistan (150) placed higher on the list.

The WPFI is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières), an international non-profit and non-governmental organization that aims at safeguarding the right to freedom of information.

In the 21st edition of the WPFI released on Wednesday (May 3, celebrated as World Press Freedom Day), India is among the 31 countries where the situation of press freedom is stated to be in the “very serious” category — the worst. Incidentally, most of the countries in this category lie in Asia, with all the bottom six being from the continent. Mostly European nations made up the top 10 with Norway topping the list.

While North Korea is at the bottom of the list, it is followed by China, Vietnam, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Syria, in that order. Among India’s neighbours, barring China, Myanmar comes at 173rd, while Bangladesh is only two spots behind, at 163rd. Sri Lanka (135th), Nepal (95th), and Bhutan (90th) are way up on the list.

Problems with India’s press

In the opening remarks about India, Reporters Without Borders states: “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in “the world’s largest democracy”, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right.”

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The WPFI comprises five variables — Political indicator, Economic indicator, Legislative indicator, Social indicator, and the Security indicator. India has slipped on every index since last year, with its worst ranking being in the Security indicator. While last year, India ranked 163rd in this parameter, its rank this year is 172nd, which means journalists in only eight countries are worse off than those in India in terms of safety.

The security indicator “evaluates the ability to identify, gather and disseminate news and information in accordance with journalistic methods and ethics, without unnecessary risk of bodily harm, psychological or emotional distress, or professional harm resulting from, for example, loss of one’s job, confiscation of professional equipment, or ransacking of media installations.”

The only countries placed below India in this parameter are China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Myanmar, with Myanmar being at the bottom.

Political pressure

Another parameter on which India performs dismally (169th, down from 145th last year) is the Political indicator, which “evaluates the degree of support and respect for media autonomy, vis-à-vis political pressure from the state or from other political actors.”

On Economic indicator, India ranks 155th, down from 149th last year; on Legislative indicator, India is down to 144th from 120th; on Social indicator, India has slipped from 127th last year to 143rd this year.

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While highlighting the problems with the media landscape in India, the NGO has started with the concentration of ownership. “…the abundance of media outlets conceals tendencies toward the concentration of ownership, with only a handful of sprawling media companies at the national level, including the Times Group, HT Media Ltd, The Hindu Group and Network18. Four dailies share three quarters of the readership in Hindi, the country’s leading language,” it states.

“The concentration is even more marked at the regional level for local language publications such as Kolkata’s Bengali-language Anandabazar Patrika, the Mumbai-based daily Lokmat, published in Marathi, and Malayala Manorama, distributed in southern India. This concentration of ownership in the print media can also be observed in the TV sector with major TV networks such as NDTV. The state-owned All India Radio (AIR) network owns all news radio stations,” it adds.

“NDTV takeover signalled end of pluralism”

The next factor cited is the “spectacular rapprochement” between “the BJP and the big families dominating the media” since the mid-2010s, when Narendra Modi became prime minister.

“The prime example is undoubtedly the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s, who owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians. Similarly, the takeover of the NDTV channel at the end of 2022 by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also very close to Narendra Modi, signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media,” the NGO states.

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Under the legal framework, the NGO points out how “charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as ‘anti-national’…. Journalists who try to cover anti-government strikes and protests are often arrested and sometimes detained arbitrarily.”

Under Economic Context, the report cites how Indian “media outlets largely depend on advertising contracts with local and regional governments”. It says, “At the national level, the central government has seen that it can exploit this to impose its own narrative, and is now spending more than 130 billion rupees (5 billion euros) a year on ads in the print and online media alone.”

The report highlights the lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms by stating, “For the most part, only Hindu men from upper castes hold senior positions in journalism or are media executives — a bias that is reflected in media content. For example, fewer than 15% of the participants in major evening talk shows are women.”

India among “most dangerous countries for media”

In terms of safety, the report says “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media” with “an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year”. “Journalists are exposed to all kinds of physical violence including police violence, ambushes by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt local officials. Supporters of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu far right, wage all-out online attacks on any views that conflict with their thinking,” the report says.

“The situation is also still very worrisome in Kashmir, where reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries, with some being subjected to so-called ‘provisional’ detention for several years,” the report adds.

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India has been progressively sliding on the WPFI over the years. In 2002, the first year, it was placed at 80th on a list of 139 countries. In 2003, it slipped to 128th among 166 countries. In 2013, it was at 140th. But this is the first time it has been placed in the “very serious” category. In fact, only 21 countries were in that category even two years ago, while 10 more nations have been added to that number this year.

RSF secretary general, Christophe Deloire, told The Guardian that the increase can be seen “as authoritarian leaders become increasingly bold in their attempts to silence the press.”

“The difference is being blurred between true and false, real and artificial, facts and artifices, jeopardising the right to information,” the report says.

Deloire told The Guardian that “The international community needs to wake up to reality, and act together, decisively and fast, to reverse this dangerous trend.”