India has dropped to rank 142, two points below its 2019 rank, in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index unveiled Tuesday.
The annual press freedom list is produced by the campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which surveys the state of the media in 180 countries and territories.
RSF’s latest report attributes India’s rank to the Narendra Modi government “tightening” its grip on the media, and pressuring it to “toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”.
Among other issues, it has listed coordinated social media hate campaigns against journalists reporting on issues that “annoy Hindutva followers”, criminal prosecutions to gag journalists critical of authorities and police violence against journalists.
The report also suggests that India’s rank is heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir, where it has become “virtually impossible” for journalists to do their job.
“With no murders of journalists in India in 2019, as against six in 2018, the security situation for the country’s media might seem, on the face of it, to have improved. However, there have been constant press freedom violations,” the group said.
Among the nations with the top ranks are Scandinavian countries Norway, Finland, and Denmark, while countries like North Korea (180), Vietnam (175) and Syria (174) were some of the lowest ranked. India ranked better than its neighbours Pakistan (145) and Bangladesh (151), but worse than Sri Lanka (127) and Nepal (112).
Pakistan dropped three places from its 2019 ranks due to the influence of the military establishment under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rule, which the report states “cannot stand independent journalism”.
According to the report’s barometer, in the year 2020 so far, across the world, 10 journalists have been killed, 229 imprisoned and 116 citizen journalists imprisoned while one media assistant was killed and 14 media assistants imprisoned across the world.
Between 2013-14, India’s rank remained at 140, while it marginally improved to 133 and 136 in the subsequent years but dropped to 140 in 2019 following Prime Minister Modi’s resounding success in the Lok Sabha elections.
Although it noted that no journalists were killed last year, the report said it was alarming to see a visible rise of those who espouse Hindutva and their efforts to “purge” anti-national elements from national debates, along with hate campaigns that call for the “journalists concerned to be murdered”.
These campaigns, RSF said, are particularly violent when targeting women. The RSF report flags the use of Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code, which includes life imprisonment for sedition, as being used to often gag journalists critical of the establishment.
India’s 2020 score has also been influenced by the situation in Kashmir, where after the abrogation of Article 370, the clampdown on communication and internet and phone services made it very difficult for journalists to operate.
The report also made mention of three incidents of journalists being imprisoned in the recent past — Newsclick’s Gautam Navlakha, Doddipalya Narasimha Murthy from Gauri Media and Kashmir Narrator’s Aasif Sultan.
At the lowest rank of 180, North Korea scored the worst in terms of press freedom due to its leader Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime that has kept its citizens in a “state of ignorance”.
The report laid out how under his regime, Kim Jong-Un has complete control over communication, and that North Koreans today could be sent to concentration camps just for viewing, reading or listening to content provided by a media outlet based outside the country.
Noting how press freedom at the time of a pandemic like coronavirus is crucial, RSF critiqued Kim Jong-un’s regime for maintaining that the official number of coronavirus cases remain at zero, while his capital appeals for help to the international community in battling the virus.
In this regard, China, ranked at 177, has also been critiqued for how COVID-19’s spread was facilitated by censorship and pressure on a whistle-blower, yet the country continues to further tighten control over the media.
With a rank of 45, the US improved three points since 2019 but arrests, physical assaults, public denigration and the harassment of journalists continued in 2019 under President Donald Trump’s administration.
Norway, which has consistently ranked number one since 2017, was cited for how its government prizes democracy and freedom of expression, and also noted the recent formation of a special commission meant to conduct comprehensive reviews on conditions of freedom of speech. The commission is meant to specifically look into safeguarding journalists, and come up with ways to curb fake news and hate speech.