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When it comes to freedom of the press, the charts over the years don’t present a rosy picture
When it comes to freedom of the press, the charts over the years don’t present a rosy picture|Representational image
OPINION

World press freedom day: A scary thought

Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically, limiting the ability of newspapers & broadcasters to do their work effectively; media ownership is becoming increasingly politicised

Irani Sonowal Lepcha

Irani Sonowal Lepcha

It’s scary to be a journalist these days. Despite the huge responsibilities that they carry while going about their line of duty, when it comes to freedom of the press, the charts over the years don’t present a rosy picture.

Being the fourth pillar of democracy, the press is expected to keep a check on the powers that be in the state, and highlight the report card of the ruling government. But when it comes to reporting on something in a free and fair manner, they get vulnerable and prone to attacks, some of which can even be life-threatening.

In a democracy, the press works like a mediator between the people and the elected representatives. Freedom of the press means to paint a true picture of things that are happening around them through various media, be it print, electronic or digital, and without any censorship by the government. But that is not always the case, as we have found out over the years.

Let’s look at recent cases. One of the most high-profile crimes against the press was undoubtedly the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October last year. The brutal incident caused a wave of noise in the west and fueled a major political crisis between the Saudis and the wider international community.

In India, three Indian journalists have been hit by vehicles and killed in recent days in what their families and rights groups claim were deliberate attacks. The death of reporters Sandeep Sharma in Madhya Pradesh and Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh in Bihar has underlined India’s status as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, particularly in languages other than English and outside large cities.

Sharma, 36, had conducted an undercover “sting” that claimed to have produced footage of a senior police official in his area agreeing to accept a Rs 25,000 (£272) bribe each month in exchange for allowing sand mining in a protected crocodile sanctuary. The day before Sharma was killed, Nishchal and Singh were also run down by a vehicle allegedly driven by an ex-village chief.

In September last year, senior journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh was gunned down on her doorsteps in Bengaluru, Karnataka. Earlier this month, the police arrested a man with close ties to Hindu nationalist groups.

Closer home, in Tripura, Santanu Bhowmik (27) was attacked with sharp weapons while covering a road blockade agitation of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which is demanding a separate tribal state called Twipraland.

The killing of the journalist, who was working for a local television channel, occurred amid continuing clashes between supporters of the IPFT and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in the Khowai, Teliamura and Jirania subdivisions of the state. Scores were injured, houses burnt, police vehicles torched and policemen attacked following the tension in Tripura.

Manipur TV journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem, who was arrested under the National Security Act, for social media posts criticising the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was finally released following a Manipur High Court order. Defending its decision to jail the journalist, the Manipur government claimed that Wangkhem was arrested to "prevent him from acting in any matter pre-judicial to the security of the state and maintenance of public order", after a video, reportedly, had the journalist calling chief minister N Biren Singh a "puppet" of PM Narendra Modi. The journalist had also criticised the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS for organising a function, in capital Imphal, meant to mark the birth anniversary of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Wangkhem had alleged that Rani of Jhansi had nothing to do with Manipur.

"This is another attempt to use the state machinery to silence dissent. Over the past few months, we have witnessed the BJP government's design to trample on constitutional rights of the people of Manipur," Congress chief Rahul Gandhi was quoted as saying in a letter to the scribe condemning his detention.

Newsrooms have shrunk dramatically, limiting the ability of newspapers and broadcasters to do their work effectively. The reason behind is money, advertising models have shifted, Google and Facebook hoover up most of the advertising spend; and readers are no longer accustomed to paying for quality journalism, so most don’t.

Media ownership is becoming increasingly politicised, further undermining the independence of major broadcasters and titles.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report last year that 27 journalists had been killed “with complete impunity” in India since 1992. It listed another 25 murder cases it was investigating to ascertain a connection to the journalists’ work. At least another six journalists have been killed in the time since the report was published.

The CPJ ranks India 13th in its global impunity index, highlighting countries where the killings of journalists are least likely to be punished. The organisation claims not a single journalist’s murder in the country has been solved in the past 10 years. Of the 180 nations assessed, North Korea finished last, followed by Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria and China.

Unfortunately, India ranks a lowly 136 on the list consisting of 180 countries. Slipping down three ranks this time, in 2016, India ranked at 133. Among India's neighboring countries, Pakistan ranks 139, Sri Lanka at 141, Afghanistan at 120, Bangladesh at 146, Nepal at 100, Bhutan at 84 and China is ranked at 176.

The Middle East and North Africa experienced the biggest decline in freedom of speech by region in the world, as countries in the region struggle with war and political clashes.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said that 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks and crossfire incidents in 2018.

The group said the new report showed that journalists face dangers apart from the risks of reporting from war zones and covering extremist movements.

"There were other factors, such as the increasing intolerance to independent reporting, populism, rampant corruption and crime, as well as the breakdown of law and order," the IFJ said.

CPJ's India correspondent Kunal Majumder said that in today's challenging world journalists are having so much of difficulties to write an honest piece or opinion. Even in Northeast India, journalists are not devoid of political pressure and life threats.

“People talk about democracy, but where is democracy?” he questioned. “The government should take all the incidents with the journalists seriously and find a way out,” he added.

Meanwhile, we could see several organisations working for the freedom of the press. However, no such amicable solutions could be found so far. Now it’s high time that these organisations left the traditional methods of approaching the authorities concerned and created newer options so that the government could frame few rights or laws to protect the freedom of the press.