Press Freedom Day: 'Speaking for Power or Checking Power,' Asks Apar Gupta

In an interview with The Quint, the digital rights advocate speaks about India's eroding press freedom.

4 min read

"India is at a very, very difficult juncture where it has people who espouse hate speech and propaganda masquerading as journalists, and journalists who are under threat with respect to their life and liberty. You need to understand whether you are speaking for power or seeking to check power," says Apar Gupta.

Speaking to The Quint on World Press Freedom Day, Gupta, who is the director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, talks about how the freedom of the press has been eroding in India.


Q: How is India holding up with respect to global indices on press freedom?

"Look at global indices. You may disagree with them, and you may also question the basis of a global think tank doing a study on India. What cannot be discounted is that on core metrics, such as the number of journalists killed, India had a very low rank 10 years ago, and it's now come to rank number two or one. This was put out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)."

"It's a bad way to think about our political system, to think that it cannot improve and that it has been bad at a certain point in time, and this is only a regression to how bad things were at a given point in time. The regression has been objectively marked for the past 10 years."

Q: How does this particular central government perceive free press?

"We have the union government, which is headed by the Prime Minister, who has never given a press conference. You had a recent celebration of 100 episodes of Mann Ki Baat, in which there is no intermediation, and there is no editorial check. There is no basis to put in questions that are off-script. So, what that often results in is a form of thinking in the government, that they are under siege or under attack."

"The government ultimately becomes a journalist, in addition to being a government, where the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Press Information Bureau, are the only reliable sources of information about the government."

Q: You were counsel for the petitioners in the Shreya Singhal case. Can you tell us how things stand?

"Under the Shreya Singhal judgment, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was ruled to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which meant that all prosecutions under it, in the past, the present, and the future, would cease to happen. But a lot of prosecutions have been shifted from Section 66 to Section 67."

Editors note: Under the scrapped section 66A of the IT Act, a person posting offensive content online could have been imprisoned for up to three years and also fined.

"Section 67 concerns obscenity. If you make a social media post that is critical of either social values or topics and themes which may invite controversy, there are risks that the establishment may include Section 67 against you, and argue that it's obscene. The result of that is an FIR and a long prosecution."


Q: How do we know how free is the free press?

A: "I think it's very important for us to consider: when you think about press freedom, where is the money coming from? What is the business model? And here I think, a large number of very prominent television-based news outlets, as well as newspapers are becoming diversified corporate holdings. Their business is not only in the media or in journalism, they have business interests in other domains which are completely disconnected. It may be real estate, it may be power plants. It may be education, et cetera, et cetera."

"And a lot of that, in fact, reduces the objectivity or the courage that the corporate entity may have in fulfilling its function of journalism by itself."

"The second thing I'd like to also highlight is: in addition to the economic difficulty which has arisen, there has been a rise in religious nationalism in India, which is demonstrable through our politics, but it is also demonstrable to a very large extent in the themes which can be reported or cannot be reported today."

"A lot of reporting used to happen in rural India or in smaller districts, where people used to get information about roads not being constructed or contractors pocketing certain amounts of money.

Now, what's happened is because you have this centralization of nationalism, you are quite often seeing government departments refusing these reports, and also giving it a very communal flavour. It's all turning into an identity-based conflict. This also increases the level of suspicion people have as to the motives of the report."


Q: Any last words for our readers and viewers on World Press Freedom Day?

"I would request people to take a step back and actually think. The value, the lifeblood of any democracy, that any kind of community is through informed facts.

And these informed facts quite often come to people who are paid, trained, or supervised to collect them and to put them out in a way that is comprehensible for people like us."

"This is why, on World Press Freedom Day, I would suggest that if you do read something regularly, some website that you notice you're visiting every two weeks, four or five times, consider subscribing to them. Consider paying for the news."

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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