Decaying Fourth Estate: The downfall of Free Press in India

In the World Press Freedom Index of 2020 compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), India holds 142nd place out of 180 countries dropping down from 140th in 2019. The Indian media, driven by profit and fear. Losing its freedom, it has become nothing but a marketing agency of the regime.

The state of media is deteriorating throughout the world especially in the countries where there are authoritarian regimes in power. The attacks on journalists and threatening them while performing their duties, growing censorship, misinformation, fake news everything has become common. Such a rise of anti-media regimes will lead to the death of democracy. If the media is weak, then it can give full freedom to the state to deteriorate constitutional values and might lead to totalitarianism.

Indian Scenario

In the World Press Freedom Index of 2020 compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), India holds 142nd place out of 180 countries dropping down from 140th in 2019.

In India, where the current regime is moving towards its primary objective of establishing a fascist state amidst the economic and social unrest, the biased media is fueling the polarisation. It has already lost transparency and losing the trust of people. A considerable section of Indian media is driven by vested interests both politically and economically. By losing its freedom, it has become nothing but a marketing agency of a particular ideology spreading the state-controlled narrative. The remaining small section of the press still adhere to the ethos of journalism keeping accountability and truthfulness in reporting. It is rapidly going down as journalists, reporters are being targeted by the government by different means, either through the police machinery or even by influencing public sentiments against the free press. In the last few months, the state employed full repressive power to crush the dissent.

The fake news is also an important role to play in this chaos. It is used both ways, one to propagate the agenda of the regime and spreading misinformation among the citizens and secondly, it is also used against the independent media itself to malign and question their credibility. In reality many responsible journalists, media outlets are targeted on the allegation of producing fake news by state-sponsored trolling forces on social media but those who create fake news remained untouched.

From time to time the government makes it clear that it does not want those who speak truth to power but can pamper those who propagate their agenda.

The recent example of this is the alleged "attack" on Arnab Goswami, owner of Republic TV. When responsible journalists were attacked, targeted on social media, charged with false cases, imprisoned, or even killed, the state takes no interest in the matter. No trustworthy investigations and no arrests. But when people like Arnab Goswami with Y grade security were allegedly attacked with ink thrown on his car, the central Information and Broadcasting minister quickly condemned by saying it is against democracy, and police also immediately arrested the two culprits. Many hashtags were trending on social media in solidarity and support of Arnab.

In the Global Impunity Index report published by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization defending the right of journalists worldwide to report safely without fear, India is one among the 14 countries having worst records of prosecuting the attackers of journalists along with the countries like Syria, Somalia, Mexico on the list.

Media in the time of COVID 19

The Director-General of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, while speaking on the 2020 Press Freedom Index, expressed that, "The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious "shock doctrine" to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times."

In many countries including India, there is a suppression of media reporting while handling the pandemic of COVID 19 to cover the deteriorating conditions of healthcare and inefficient response by the government. The Indian government unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the independent media from reporting on the pandemic by filing the petition in Supreme Court to bar the media from publishing information related COVID 19. Though the court officials refused to intervene, the media was ordered to refer the official version of the developments on the COVID-19 before publishing.

The International Press Institute (IPI), the largest association of media professionals representing leading independent media in nearly 100 countries and defend media freedom and the free flow of news has taken note of it and expressed concern.

“Independent journalism is an essential partner in protecting public health. We urge the Indian authorities to ensure that all journalists can do their job of informing the public at this critical time." - Scott Griffen, Deputy Director IPI

It all shows that the authoritarian governments, well aware of their shortcomings fears the media and hence attempts to curb their freedom employing political power, fake news, and misleading public opinion.

On this World Freedom of Press Day it is important to realise that, no nation, no democratic government can thrive if the media is not independent. The fourth pillar can stand stable where there sense of accountability within media and the state. If we do not want this time to further worsen, it is for the people to act carefully while consuming the information that is pumped out there. It is needed to come together in defence of the safety of the independent media and support them. A strong response from the public is needed to fight fake news to protect the transparency and freedom of the press.

The latest Freedom of Press index indicates that the upcoming time will shape the future of journalism. If free press can't sustain then there will be nothing but propaganda and marketing to manufacture the consent.

Author: Nikhil Latagajanan, Co-founder, The Colourboard. Documentary Filmmaker.

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