03/05/2017 4:51 PM IST | Updated 03/05/2017 4:52 PM IST

On World Press Freedom Day, PM Modi's Support For 'Free And Vibrant' Media Means Precious Little

A report found 54 attacks on Indian journalists in the last 16 months alone.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India's politicians, led by none other then Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are busy commemorating World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday, even a report published by media observer The Hoot estimates at least 54 attacks and 25 cases of intimidation of media personnel in the last 16 months alone.

The actual numbers may be significantly higher, if we go by Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir's statement during question hour in the Lok Sabha that 142 attacks on journalists have taken place between 2014-15.

But ground realities can scarcely silence the PR machinery that oils the wheels of governance.

Hoot's list of atrocities on press freedom in India mentions the killing of at least 7 journalists, though only one of them can be claimed to have been murdered due to professional reasons, three cases of television channels being banned, and 45 counts of Internet shutdown. In the last four years, Jammu & Kashmir has faced Internet blackouts at least 31 times, 14 of which have already taken place this year. What sort of a "free & vibrant" press, one wonders, did the PM have in mind? As journalist Vidya Krishnan pointed out, his sentiments made little sense, given his PMO's reputation of approving questions in advance of interviews.

Another journalist, Saikat Datta, called out UNESCO for not inviting journalists to a conference on World Press Freedom Day in New Delhi, choosing, instead, to give space to "panels of vested interests, lobbyists and corporates who are part of the problem" media people face in India. "I am shocked to see that even a panel on Internet Shut Downs has failed to include a single voice from either Kashmir or the North East or other conflict zones that sees such shut down on a daily basis," he added.

A majority of the attacks on the journalists were carried out by the police, followed by workers of political parties and powerful industrial lobbies, who don't take kindly to their misdeeds being exposed. The number of people arrested on charges is also abysmal — only 32 people were held in the 114 incidents of attacks on journalists in 2014. The record for 2015 was much better, with 41 being arrested in 28 instances.

With the advent of social media, a good deal of these attacks have shifted to the Internet, where an army of trolls spend each day targeting handles for having political beliefs not to their liking, especially women journalists, who are abused, threatened with rape, death and much worse.

But the nature of censorship faced by the media is not always so abrasive. The more sophisticated response is to label their content as harmful to the national interest, leading to blackout of television channels (case in point, NDTV last year) or banning of local news outlets like Kashmir Reader, as a precautionary measure to the unrest in the Valley. With frequent cases of sedition filed for the slightest, often imaginary, breach of protocol, such justifications are becoming increasingly common.

To a large extent, information in India is becoming increasingly inaccessible, or selective available, in spite of having such robust mechanisms as the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. The weakening of RTI is now ever more palpable with the forceful imposition of the Aadhaar scheme on the people by the government. Since 2007, at least 65 RTI activists have been killed, 157 attacked, and 168 threatened, reports say. While many of the affected may not be journalists, or directly involved with the media, their brutal silencing is a appalling reflection of the muzzling of free speech and circulation of information in this country.

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