If India's Free Press Succumbs, Freedom of Citizens Won't Be Far Behind

India is in the list of the 30 worst countries of the world, for press freedom, placed 150th out of 180.

4 min read

(This story was published on 8 May 2022 and is being republished from The Quint's archives in the backdrop of the Centre questioning the methodology behind the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, which ranked India 150 out of 180.)

Null Fragen. That translates as ‘zero questions’ in German. But we never got to hear it from our Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi visiting Germany because he refused to take any. As a result, Chancellor Olaf Scholz too got to answer nothing.

PM Modi was ambushed outside by a few reporters and said ‘Oh mein gott’ – in English – but that is something the Indian public should be saying. The link between press freedom, being able to ask questions of a PM and democracy, is an undeniable one. It is supremely ironic that this embarrassing situation unfolded on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day.


Falling Rankings

The next day, the world found out that India is in the list of the 30 worst countries of the world, for press freedom. For perspective, India is at 150 out of 180 countries.

At the bottom is North Korea, India is one rank below Turkey and one rank ahead of Sudan and except for three African countries, Eretria, Egypt, and Sudan (each of them known for hard-line dictatorships), all African countries are way ahead of India.

India is at the lowest of those that call themselves a democracy.

Press freedom is defined as “the ability of journalists as individuals and collectives to select, produce, and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal, and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety.”

The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontier now has an evaluatory process which looks at five distinct parameters. The details are more cause for concern. The political, the legislative indicator, the economic, socio-cultural indicators and safety is what goes into making the overall score.

India manages to somehow fare better in the legislative section, at 120th position, and on the social indicator at 127th position, which ensured that India did not slip into the “very bad” zone. On safety, India’s record is very poor and it ranks at 163 out of 180 countries (18th from the bottom).

On politics, it is at 145 and on the economy at 149. The fall in the ranking from 2021 is steeper as far as cumulative points go – from 53.44 to 41 points.

Press Freedom: Proxy for Democracy?

That the five parameters used to evaluate the environment for journalism are actually the framework to evaluate democratic functioning and norms is what is a red flag. And it is not just RSF’s Index. At least three prominent global indices on Democracy, V-Dem, International IDEA, and Freedom House have each spoken of the deteriorating environment for press freedoms in India.

On 3 May, ten organisations, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, PEN America, Reporters Without Borders, International Federation of Journalists, CIVICUS, Access Now, International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch issued a statement, saying that,

“Indian authorities are increasingly targeting journalists and online critics for their criticism of government policies and practices, including by prosecuting them under counter-terrorism and sedition laws.”

Post Emergency Media Myth Burst

Indian media had always patted itself on the back for recovering from the impact of a full censorship and a hostile environment for the Press during the First Emergency between 1975-77.

But with challenges of digital technology stumping traditional media, economic dependence on government advertising and in some media houses an innate resonance with ideals of the ruling party, has meant an almost full abdication of the role of media as a watchdog, a provider of space for debate, information or scrutiny or lesser still, of holding the government to record.


Challenges of working with an executive which prioritises control over the information sphere along with serious changes within the Indian media landscape have led to what Indian Journalism in a New Era, Changes, Challenges and Perspectives (edited by Shakuntala Rao) speaks of: A desire for maximising profits and increased ratings damaging “established norms of ethical journalism.”

Profusion of Indian Media: New Course?

TV channels particularly seem to prefer succumbing to a Fox-isation of news, and treating it as a bloodsport. The challenge for the media to stay relevant, with a single party in such a dominant position, economically, politically and socially, must be to pursue the truth, over an imagined pursuit of ‘balance’, which ends up giving those who must be held accountable a free pass.

Acclaimed journalist Christiane Amanpour told a conference of the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2016 that they should aim for truth over neutrality. Watching a reporting on the US presidential campaign that returned Trump, she said she was “shocked by the exceptionally high bar put before one candidate and the exceptionally low bar put before the other candidate."

She explained, “It appeared that much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth.”

Indian media over the past three decades have exploded. There are, as per TRAI (2017), 825 registered TV channels across languages and over 80,000 newspapers including 300 24/7 news channels in 16 languages. But there are now again significant signs of change in the form of major consolidation of what was a fragmented scene. Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, senior Media watcher speaking of the new phase of convergence of media with information, entertainment, and sports suggests it could chart the Australian path which is exemplified by the Murdoch route of sports and TV news debate-led channels completely owning the territory.

Press freedoms in India face a variety of challenges today. Unfortunately, if the media succumb fully, the only casualty will not be a free press but also the freedoms of citizens that a free press is supposed to foster. That is why sharply diminished rankings on the World Press Freedom Index must matter to all of us, not just to those wielding a pen or a mic.

(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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