Do ordinary people really care about press freedom? Or is this just an elitist concern, although the elite in this country would not exert themselves to defend this particular freedom?
The question pops up periodically whenever there is a discussion on the state of the media in India.
According to the latest compiled by Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, one journalist has been killed and 13 are in prison in India since January 2022. Many more work under the stress of death threats, surveillance and fighting innumerable court cases filed against them. In any country that claims to be a democracy, this does not indicate that there is complete press freedom. In fact, quite to the contrary.
This is precisely what the RSF ranking has shown – a steady decline in India’s ranking out of 180 countries surveyed. From 133 in 2016 to 142 in 2021 and 150 now, India’s fall has been quite precipitous.
The government, of course, will not accept this. Predictably, it sees all such reports as a conspiracy to defame India and sully its reputation as a shining example of democratic and press freedoms.
But it only has to look in the mirror to realise that the situation is far from “shining”. On the contrary, it gets murkier every day. On one side journalists who question, report and unearth realities are hounded, charged and sometimes even killed. On the other, you have the majority of the Indian media choosing to be an echo chamber of this government, repeating and amplifying everything it is told to do, or even when it is not explicitly told to do so.
Despite 75 years as an elected democracy, it is striking how the idea of a free press, or the absence of one, does not stir too many in the electorate. It would appear that the media really does not make much of a difference to the lives of ordinary people. Or perhaps it indicates our changed times, where what circulates on social media has more currency than news that is reported in the media.
But despite this indifference of the voting public, it goes without saying that without a free press, much of what is happening in this country would go unreported.
Yet, take the instance of the reporting during the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. Especially during the second wave, at least some media, particularly independent digital news platforms, did report the devastating tragedy of lakhs of people dying on the way to hospitals, gasping for air without oxygen supply, and then being buried in shallow graves or simply thrown in the Ganga. Despite this, people did not connect what had happened to mismanagement by the central and state governments. Why?
According to of Scroll, the main reason voters failed to connect the daily human tragedies that played out during the second wave of the pandemic last year to the government’s mismanagement of the crisis was because of a “lack of media critique”.
He rightly points out: “Throughout the pandemic, big media houses – especially Hindi and English-languages outlets based in the National Capital Region – chose to avoid blaming the government for both the economic losses as well as the healthcare collapse. Instead, Covid-19 was portrayed as a global act of god that had affected each and every country in much the same way. Very few news reports made it to the mainstream Hindi and English media showing government malfunction or the fact that India was one of the worst-hit countries.”
If mainstream media had reported truthfully about the way the pandemic played out in the lives of people, would voters have made different choices in the elections that followed?
Looking back, there was a time when this did happen. In 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, press freedom went into hibernation. It only came out of it in January 1977, when the emergency was lifted before the March general election.
The media used the window between the end of the emergency and the election to expose the gross violations of the rights of poor people, particularly through the mass and forcible sterilisation campaigns and the demolitions of urban poor settlements. Indira Gandhi’s image as someone who cared for the poor was seriously dented. “Garibi hatao” had turned into “Garib hatao”. And it was the poor who voted wholeheartedly against her and the Congress party, leading to political change.
Given the state of the Indian media today, it is highly unlikely that its reporting on issues – like the “bulldozer injustice” story, for instance – will trigger political change. This story is being covered because it is happening in the national capital where most media houses are headquartered. There would have been little to no coverage had this kind of violation of the rights of poor people occurred in a remoter location. In any case, every day there are similar and even starker violations that take place in the rest of the country that are never reported.
Also telling is the fact that when the RSF report was released on May 3, which is designated as World Press Freedom Day, hardly any of the major media houses, or even print newspapers, chose to comment on it apart from carrying reports on its contents. It would appear that even we in the media don’t really care how free we are.
Krishna Prasad, former editor of Outlook, under his media critique handle @churumuri that not even one English language newspaper out of 16 surveyed, or 15 Indian language papers in 22 states, bothered to comment on India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Only independent digital news platforms like Scroll and the Wire brought home the real significance of this report, as in the Wire sets out clearly and forcefully.
It concludes with these words: “The time for mincing words has long passed: India’s democracy is dying in bright daylight. And yet, this death is not inevitable. The press is under siege but must find ways to stand its ground, chronicle what is unfolding and raise its voice in solidarity with every journalist and media house in the firing line.”
The media is under siege in India and many journalists are literally on the firing line. But they are being killed or incapacitated in different ways, not just by bullets or beatings.
Let me end with the story of a rural journalist in Uttar Pradesh – . In 2019, the UP government charged him with conspiracy to defame the government because he made a film showing children in a Mirzapur village eating salt with their rotis as their midday meal. The midday meal scheme was conceived to ensure that the poorest children get at least one nutritious meal a day.
Jaiswal was doing what journalists are supposed to do – record and report the reality, often ugly and distressing, that unfolds daily in many parts of this country. But in the eyes of the UP government, this was a crime for which he had to be punished.
Tragically, Jaiswal of cancer, a disease for which he did not earn enough as a rural journalist to get adequate treatment.
No one killed Jaiswal. But a system that criminalises journalists who are doing their jobs, and pays them so little that they can barely survive, is responsible for his death.