In yet another setback to the Indian democracy, the country slipped two places to 138th rank on World Press Freedom Index that ranks 180 countries. The report compiled by Reporters Without Borders blamed increasing physical violence against journalists like Gauri Lankesh as the reason behind India’s low ranking.
The report reflects on hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism posing a threat to journalism. It says that in India, hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies.
The report adds that with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.
“Any investigative reporting that annoys the ruling party or any criticism of Hindutva, elicits a torrent of online insults and calls for the death of the reporter or writer responsible, most of it coming from the prime minister’s troll army,” the report said.
Truth is bitter but the report rightly points out the present situation in the country. While the murder of newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh attracted media attention, not every killing hit the headline and create outrage. Three journalists were killed in March 2018 for their professional activities. In New Delhi, journalists were roughed up by the police covering protests from Jawaharlal Nehru University. A journalist covering JNU even alleged molestation at the hands of the police.
Swathi Vadlamudi, working for The Hindu newspaper in Hyderabad is facing a possible three-year jail sentence for hurting religious sentiments through her cartoon post series of rape cases in the country. She received threats on social networks mixed with extreme misogyny and vulgarity. Her home was stoned and she was threatened that she will suffer the same fate as that of Gauri Lankesh.
The media is often criticized for favoritism and fake news but those who dare to speak against the government and point out the truth are often at the receiving end. Threatening phone calls, trolling over the internet, abuses, physical violence and death are the price they pay for being the fourth pillar of the democracy and for putting their freedom of press to use. The reporters especially those working in conflict hit areas face more threats than their colleagues in the studios in New Delhi and Mumbai.
The media is an unorganised sector in the country and watchdogs like Press Council of India are toothless tigers with little or no power to take action against the threats. While there is need to curb the menace of fake news in the country, stringent laws are also needed to put to book those who threaten the freedom of press. Physical violence against journalists and content censorship not only holds the freedom of press at gun point but also puts to test the democracy of the nation.