In India, press freedom is unlikely to ever be a burning election issue – be it manifestos or street protests.
The ongoing protest by Indian wrestling champions Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia demanding action against the head of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, on charges of sexual harassment, has held up a mirror not just to Indian society but also to the media.
National English language newspapers have given the protests prominent coverage, not just on the sports page, but also on the front page. On April 26, for instance, after the wrestlers decided to resume their protest at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, most papers carried stories on both pages simultaneously and strong editorial comments (read here, here, here and here).
It is likely that a combination of this kind of persistent coverage, allowing the voices of the women and men involved to be heard, as well as the intervention of the Supreme Court in admitting the protesters’ petition demanding that the Delhi police file an FIR against Singh, finally shamed the latter into doing so.
But the coverage also threw up other questions that need to be answered. The most glaring one was whether other women in sports have also experienced what these women wrestlers have brought out in the open. Can other sportswomen also speak up? If not, why?
Finally, one newspaper has begun the process that needs to be pursued in greater depth by the media. An investigation by the Indian Express, published on May 4, reveals that 16 out of 30 sports federations have not set up the very minimum that is needed to deal with sexual harassment, that is an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as mandated by the 2013 Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act. If some have, then the process is incomplete even though the law lays down very clearly the composition of these committees.
We must remember that in most sports, especially in athletics, the women who do well often come from smaller towns, even villages. Their families cannot send them to the kind of private schools that would give them an opportunity to explore a career in sports. Often such families choose to invest what little they have to give their talented daughters a chance. For every girl who succeeds, there must be thousands who never get a chance. That is why the story of women in sports in India is one that needs greater focus in the media.
Many of these young women and girls, who overcome dominant conservative and patriarchal norms, and make their way to training camps to prepare for their lives in sports, do not possess the social capital to question or confront the powerful men in control. They also cannot risk losing the chance to get ahead in their sporting careers. Hence the silence that has now been broken by the women wrestlers.
This is a story that must be investigated at many levels. The absence of the ICCs is the first step. The sub-par conditions in the training facilities have sometimes been highlighted but they need more exposure. And we need to know more about these young women and girls who are dreaming of making it big in sports. Only then can readers and viewers understand the significance of this protest by the women wrestlers.
The fact that at least some media have followed up on this protest also reminds us of recent stories that continue to be ignored. For instance, the revelations of the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satyapal Malik, in various interviews he gave last month about the Pulwama tragedy of February 2019. Many questions remain unanswered and despite Malik’s controversial statements, the government has chosen to remain silent. Some of the media did report what he said, but there has been little to nothing in mainstream media by way of a follow-up so far. The silence is telling.
In contrast, it was interesting to see the almost uniform, and uncritical coverage of the hundredth episode of the Prime Minister’s monthly monologue, Mann Ki Baat. Every newspaper front-paged it. All the praises by various people, including film stars, were reported. The narrative set out for this occasion, that this was a way Modi connected to the people in India, was repeated uncritically throughout.
Curiously, the media did not ask why a programme by a prime minister – on government media and further amplified by a virtual diktat to private channels to also relay it – needed to be celebrated when it crossed a particular number? Was there any doubt that it would not cross this milestone? Furthermore, were millions of people really stopping in their tracks to listen when the prime minister’s voice came through the airwaves?
Only some independent digital platforms like The Wire had the temerity to tell us something else, that in fact a majority of those surveyed had never listened to even one of the 100 episodes of Mann Ki Baat. A little scepticism is the norm in any country that boasts of having a free press.
So how free is the media in India? Not much, according to the World Press Freedom Index 2023 released on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
India has slipped 11 points on the World Press Freedom Index, from 150 out of 180 countries last year to 161 this time.
This news was not greeted with concern, or disbelief. While digital news platforms and social media did take note and comment, most newspapers carried routine reports. So far, there has been nothing either expressing concern or scepticism about India’s ranking on this index. The government, predictably, has chosen to ignore it completely. If it does comment, it will probably dismiss it as a Western conspiracy to attack India’s “vibrant democracy”.
Yet, this precipitous fall in the press freedom ranking in just one year calls for further investigation.
According to the report by Reporters Without Borders that puts together this index each year, India is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, given that on an average, three to four journalists are killed every year. Additionally, the report notes, “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 points out that although there are laws in place that should protect journalists, provisions of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are in fact being used against journalists who are critical. Proof of this is evident if one looks at what’s happening in Kashmir, where a combination of threats, intimidation and arrests have silenced what was once a vibrant media scene.
The report concludes, “The old Indian model of a pluralist press is therefore being seriously challenged by a combination of harassment and influence.”
The real story about the deterioration in press freedom lies away from the big cities where mainstream media is concentrated. We need to focus on the stringer, the rural journalists, the district level papers and local channels and assess how they survive financially, what are the challenges they face from local authorities, and if they have survived, how have they changed. This would give us a better understanding of why the World Press Freedom Index has ranked India so low.
In any case, press freedom as a concept has been slowly and steadily hollowed out, especially in the last nine years since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in Delhi. As a result, readers and viewers of the media are gradually accepting that what we see today is the norm, that the job of the media is to support the powerful in politics and business, not to question and expose them.
In India, press freedom is unlikely to ever be a burning election issue. It will not reflect in commitments in election manifestos, whatever such promises are worth. Nor will it get people out on the streets defending it.
One reason for this is the gradual loss of trust in the media, particularly by those who are already marginalised in our society.
The Reuters Institute conducted an interesting study recently on trust in the media in four countries – United States, United Kingdom, India, and Brazil.
Through discussions in focus groups in these countries, comprising representatives from marginalised communities, the study found that many such groups felt that the media either misrepresented them, or under-represented their concerns, or put out inaccurate news about them. This has resulted in not just lack of trust but in some instances even harmed such communities.
I will leave readers with this observation in the report which I think is prescient and reflects accurately the real condition of the media in India.
“The news media as an institution, especially in the UK, the US, and India, was often viewed as an extension of systems aligned to serve those in power – systems many felt excluded from… News media were rarely seen as catering to the entire public so much as reinforcing the interests of those already most privileged and powerful.”