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24/01/2018 12:38 PM IST | Updated 24/01/2018 12:43 PM IST

If 2017 Was A Terrible Year For The Freedom Of Press In India, 2018 Isn’t Looking Any Better

The battle to keep lit the flame of dissent and inquiry, grows ever tougher.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
People participate in a protest called 'Not In My Name' against the killing of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh at Jantar Mantar.

As of 2017, India ranked 136 on the World Press Freedom Index, slipping 3 points from the year before. The Indian correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that, "If ever there was a worst year for press freedom in India, 2017 would be it." Consumers of Indian news themselves saw a palpable change, or more accurately, the blunting of the proverbial pen as it (often quite literally) succumbed to the sword.

This is not to say that Indian journalism as a profession has not had to brave storms. An immediate recap to reporting in the Emergency Era would be the standard response to any hyperbole about this being the "darkest hour" for Indian media. To compare ourselves to a time when there was no television news channel apart from the state controlled Doordarshan and when substantive democracy had quite literally been suspended, shows the points to the depths to which we have fallen that such a comparison even has to be made.

The spirit of resistance and post-emergency, however, seems to have morphed into a convoluted version of itself and we are presented with a media that has all of the noise but none of the criticality. Tuning in at prime time at any of India's mainstream channels has turned into an exercise in patience and tolerance, not only of the mind, but also of the ears.

For the ordinary viewer however, this would create the impression that Indian media is flourishing and the spirit of journalism is alive and well. However, cut out all the noise, adverts and hashtags and what we are left with is a deeply dilapidated pillar of democracy, that is under attack at each of its key frontiers.

In addition to cutting news off at the source, it has become common place to initiate criminal proceedings against investigative journalists and media houses, to starve them financially and ensure they toe the line.

On January 19, The Hoot put out its "India Freedom Report ~ Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 2017" and the statistics are abysmal for a nation that proudly calls itself the world's largest democracy. 11 journalists murdered, 46 attacks and 27 cases of police action, is the state of reporting on the ground, in India today.

Most shocking, perhaps, was the brutal murder of outspoken journalist and government critic, Gauri Lankesh on the September 5, 2016 that managed to briefly shock India's notoriously ambivalent, urban, middle class from their slumber. However, just two months later, the death of journalist Sudip Datta Bhowmik at a security facility in Tripura, failed to trigger the same uproar and was a grim reminder of what has become the status quo, for journalists across the country.

While some journalists gave their lives in pursuance of their right to express and report, several others continue to bear the brunt of critical reporting, either in the form of outright violence by state and non- state actors, or threats to their life.

MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
Indian students and activists holding 'I am Gauri' placards take part in a rally held in memory of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore.

What this has meant for the profession is that journalists bear a growing threat to their lives when it comes to reporting and being critical of powerful actors both within and outside the state. By cutting of critical reporting at its source, the Indian populace is then denied a mirror, through which they can see some of their worst tendencies. With the elimination of critical reflexivity, the path is then paved for a critically castrated, yet jingoistic and hyper-polarised media to become the mainstream and hence avoid asking the tough questions that cost people their lives.

In addition to cutting news off at the source, it has become common place to initiate criminal proceedings against investigative journalists and media houses, to starve them financially and ensure they toe the line. The civil defamation suit against investigative journalist Josy Joseph in 2016, was then followed by multiple criminal defamation suits against The Wire's investigative journalism in 2017. If the start of 2018 is any indicator, then the criminal cases registered against Rachna Khaira of The Tribune , for her reporting on the Aadhaar data breach, point towards yet another year of press intimidation through legal means by entities that themselves, seem to be above the law.

At a time of rapid media corporatization, independent investigative media houses, not only have to contend with the regular confirmation bias in users, but also handle the inevitable limitation on outreach that will follow.

Finally, however, and most critically, Facebook, which has now turned into one of the world's primary sources of news (albeit indirectly), has overhauled its ranking system for posts on newsfeeds, to limit the reach of posts by publishers and instead, encourage posts by friends and family. The rationale provided for the move has been that Facebook wants to change the current culture of impersonal, passive consumption of its news feed, into one that the user constantly engages with at a personal level.

What this means for news agencies however, is that at a time of rapid media corporatization, independent investigative media houses, not only have to contend with the regular confirmation bias in users, but also handle the inevitable limitation on outreach that will follow. While most of the largest international media houses have retreated behind pay walls and the remaining large houses having the money to get their posts promoted, independent investigative media now seems to have been left out in the cold, competing for likes and comments with unoriginal meme pages and like hungry "content outlets".

The final outlook for critical media looks quite grim at the start of 2018, as it faces a squeeze on its three most essential pillars. With journalists threatened, finances controlled and outreach limited, the battle to keep lit the flame of dissent and inquiry, grows ever tougher and at a time when the world is in dire need of a critical mirror, the socio-political environment seems hell bent against it.

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