Media landscape in India: Battling press freedom challenges midst political pressures and self-censorship

By Aamir Raza

In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, India’s press freedom rank declined to 161 out of 180 countries, as indicated by a report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media watchdog. The report highlights a concerning trend of continuous deterioration in India’s media freedom, with a notable 8% decline this year compared to the usual 2-3% decrease observed annually since 2017. The decline of autonomous and unrestricted media in India isn’t a recent development. While the press freedom under the BJP administration has been hitting unprecedented depths, past governments have also not refrained from curbing the media.

Media in India: A Snapshot of current trends

A recent study conducted by Lokniti and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies reveals that a significant majority of journalists in India, about 80%, believe that the media shows excessive favoritism towards the Narendra Modi government. The study, titled “Indian Media: Trends and Patterns,” was published on Thursday and involved 206 journalists from various media outlets, including television, print, and digital platforms.

The survey included a total of 206 journalists from various backgrounds. Among them, 75% were male, while the rest were female. The researchers considered several factors during the assessment, such as the participants’ age, language proficiency, level of experience, and media association. When it came to employment, 64% of the respondents worked for media organizations, 27% were independent journalists, and 9% had a combination of both affiliations. Regarding language, 41% identified as Hindi journalists, 32% as English journalists, and the remaining 27% worked with other regional languages.

As for experience levels, 56% of the participants were senior journalists, 35% were mid-level journalists, and 6% and 3% were junior and entry-level journalists, respectively.

Mental health and Economic well being of Journalist

The survey highlighted the significant impact of job demands on the wellbeing of journalists and the economic challenges faced by the media industry. Results indicated that 85% of women and 66% of men experienced effects on their mental health due to their work. Among mid-level journalists in English news organizations and digital platforms, a higher proportion reported a notable impact on their mental health.

Furthermore, three out of four journalists stated that their jobs had an impact on their physical health. Young journalists and those in the English language industry reported more cases of poor physical health, with the burden of professional overload also affecting their family relationships. The media industry suffered layoffs following the Covid pandemic and global economic slowdown, with 45% of journalists stating that people in their organizations were asked to leave to cut costs and maintain economic stability. This situation was particularly concerning for 69% of middle-aged journalists and 77% of journalists in the English media industry.

Moreover, three-fourths of journalists in media organizations expressed worry about losing their current jobs, a concern more prevalent among mid-level journalists.

Online Harassment and Privacy Concerns Among Journalists:

The Lokniti-CSDS survey delves into the experiences of journalists in the digital realm, revealing that digital journalists face higher rates of social media harassment. A staggering 78% of digital journalists reported encountering harassment on their online posts. Comparatively, the figures were 55% for TV journalists and 54% for print journalists.

Participants were asked about the frequency of abuse, threats, bullying, or trolling they had experienced on social media due to their posts or comments. A significant 64% of respondents stated they had been harassed “at least once.”

The report highlights the concerning issue of privacy on Twitter and Facebook for women journalists, with more than half of them expressing feeling extremely unsafe about their privacy on these platforms.

To address the well-being of journalists, the report recommends that media organizations prioritize their employees’ welfare. This can be achieved by implementing support systems such as employee assistance programs, mental health resources, and providing opportunities for professional development, all while encouraging a healthy work-life balance.

Journalists’ Concerns Regarding Fake News Online

The prevalence of fake news online is a major concern for journalists, as revealed by the survey. Almost three out of four journalists (around 75%) expressed “serious concern” about receiving inaccurate information from social media sources. Additionally, more than two-thirds of all surveyed journalists (approximately 67%) admitted to being “very concerned” about the potential of being misled by false or inaccurate information posted on social media platforms or the internet.

Politics of Media Organization

According to a survey conducted among journalists, a significant majority (75%) perceived favoritism towards a particular political party in media organizations, with four out of five (80%) stating that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was favored. This data highlights the urgent need for enhanced media neutrality, as only a small portion (8%) of journalists believed that opposition parties received favorable coverage, and merely 13% considered the reporting to be balanced. Concerning media freedom, nearly three-quarters (72%) of surveyed journalists in news channels felt that their freedom to perform their duties properly has diminished compared to newspapers, where slightly over half (55%) shared the same sentiment. Online news websites were viewed differently, with 36% expressing a similar opinion on reduced freedom. These findings indicate a growing concern about media independence and its impact on unbiased reporting.

Biasness towards Muslim

According to the report more than half of the interviewed journalists in India expressed that the news media unfairly targets the Muslim community. Out of those surveyed, 26 percent fully agreed with this sentiment, while another 26 percent completely disagreed with the statement.

According to the report, the Indian news media lacks sufficient focus on marginalized communities, including women, rural areas, farmers, Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and the poor, as stated by journalists. The survey results also reveal that financial constraints often prevent journalists from leaving their current jobs in the news media. Additionally, the conclusion highlights that more than half of the surveyed journalists have considered abandoning their news media careers, indicating widespread dissatisfaction and prompting the need for further investigation into the root causes behind this issue.

Assessing Media Freedom in India

These remarkable statistics should not be unexpected when considering the broader situation of the news media in India. A 2021 study revealed that the state leveraged impunity to foster ‘journalistic self-censorship,’ thereby weakening journalism’s role as the fourth pillar of democracy. The study involved interviewing journalists in various countries, including India.

Survey participants revealed several reasons that led independent journalists to self-censor on sensitive topics like corruption, communal conflicts, religious issues, Naxal areas, Kashmir, and critical stories involving influential figures. One journalist highlighted that when the mafia controls the police, journalists have no protection. The absence of unity among journalists, the internet’s misuse to harass and threaten them, inadequate legal safeguards, and insufficient employer support compel journalists to resort to self-censorship as a means of self-preservation.

In May 2023, a research paper examined the impact of government actions on journalists amid the pandemic, taking into account the pre-existing decline in press freedom. Media outlets that were vocal about the government’s pandemic response and played a vital role in providing information during the crisis faced Income Tax (IT) raids. Notable instances included Dainik Bhaskar, a Hindi language newspaper, and Newslaundry, an independent news website.

Last year, residences belonging to the creators of The Wire and a senior editor underwent police searches subsequent to the news platform retracting an inaccurate article concerning Meta and BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya. The online community heavily criticized the raids and asset confiscation on various social platforms, attributing these actions to the BJP government’s policies. In the beginning of this year, the Income Tax department conducted searches at the BBC’s Delhi offices, notably timed after the unveiling of a contentious documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This documentary has been prohibited from airing within India by the government.

The worst case of Media censorship is in Jammu & Kashmir ever since it becomes a Union Territory under the central government. Instances of targeted attacks on local newspapers and online media platforms have stifled any semblance of independent journalism. Even the limited remaining news sources are subjected to rigorous oversight and content restrictions. A recent example is the detention of journalist Irfan Mehraj in March, orchestrated by the NIA, and encompassing charges spanning multiple sections of the IPC, including a clause under the UAPA. Presently, the region witnesses the incarceration of four journalists, all confined under either the Public Safety Act or the UAPA.

Moreover, the incarceration of Siddique Kappan for his efforts to cover the case surrounding the assault and killing of a young Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, poses a significant challenge to the liberty of the press in India. Equally concerning is the incident involving Subhash Kumar Mahato, who was shot by an unidentified assailant due to his reporting on the illicit sand and liquor trade operated by local factions in Bihar. These occurrences collectively jeopardize the fundamental principles of a free press within the country.

This atmosphere of intimidation and fear has led to self-censorship within the media industry. Journalists are increasingly cautious about reporting on sensitive issues, avoiding criticism of government officials, policies, or controversial subjects. This self-censorship compromises the role of the press as a watchdog and undermines its responsibility to hold power accountable.

The challenges faced by press freedom in India under the BJP government are complex and multifaceted. Legal pressures, self-censorship, ownership influence, threats, and disinformation collectively undermine the essential role of the press in a democratic society. As India navigates its future, safeguarding press freedom remains imperative. It requires not only legal reforms but also a concerted effort to foster a culture that values independent journalism, critical thinking, and open discourse. Only by addressing these challenges can India ensure that its media landscape remains a pillar of democratic accountability and public enlightenment.





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