Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its 2023 index report on press freedom in India. According to the report, India has ranked 161 out of 180 countries, indicating a decline in press freedom in the country. The overall score of India in the 2023 index is 36.62, which is lower than its score in the 2022 index when India was ranked 150..
The report assessed India’s press freedom based on five indicators, namely political, economic, legislative, social, and security. India performed poorly in all these indicators except for the legislative indicator, where it ranked 144 out of 180 countries with a score of 42.92.
The social indicator saw India ranked 143 out of 180 with a score of 45.27. India’s security indicator was the worst, ranking 172 out of 180 countries with a score of 27.12. The report also highlighted the decline in India’s score in the political indicator, where India ranked 169 out of 180 countries with a score of 33.65. The economic indicator also showed a decline, with India ranking 155 out of 180 countries with a score of 34.15.
According to the recent RSF report, press freedom in India, known as “the world’s largest democracy,” is facing a crisis due to various factors. The report highlights the increasing violence against journalists, politically biased media, and the concentration of media ownership as the key factors affecting the country’s press freedom.
The current ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is considered to embody the Hindu nationalist right, has been criticised for contributing to this situation. RSF’s report sheds light on the urgent need to address these issues and ensure the protection of press freedom in India.
The report on the Indian media landscape, highlights the abundance of media outlets in the country, with over 100,000 newspapers (including 36,000 weeklies) and 380 TV news channels. However, the report also notes the concentration of ownership within the media industry, with a few dominant companies at the national level, including the Times Group, HT Media Ltd, The Hindu Group, and Network18.
In Hindi, the country’s leading language, only four dailies control three-quarters of the readership. The concentration of ownership is even more pronounced at the regional level, with local language publications such as Kolkata’s Bengali-language Anandabazar Patrika, the Mumbai-based daily Lokmat, published in Marathi, and Malayala Manorama, distributed in southern India.
RSF also observed this concentration of ownership in the TV sector, with major TV networks like NDTV. The report further reveals that the state-owned All India Radio (AIR) network owns all news radio stations.
According to the report, the Indian press, originally a product of the anti-colonial movement and once considered fairly progressive, has undergone a significant transformation in recent years. This shift occurred in the mid-2010s when Narendra Modi became the prime minister and fostered a strong relationship between his party, the BJP, and the dominant media families.
One example of this is Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries group, which owns over 70 media outlets followed by at least 800 million Indians and has become a personal friend of Modi. The takeover of the NDTV channel by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also close to Modi, signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media at the end of 2022, The report said.
Modi has taken a critical stance towards journalists, considering them “intermediaries” who disrupt the direct relationship between himself and his supporters. Those who are too critical of the government are often subjected to harassment and attack campaigns by Modi’s supporters, known as bhakts.
According to RSF’s report, Indian law may be protective in theory, but journalists critical of the government are increasingly facing charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court, and endangering national security. Such journalists are being labelled as “anti-national.”
The report states that the government and its supporters are using lawsuits to silence media outlets that contradict official statements about Covid-19. Journalists who cover anti-government strikes and protests are also being arrested and sometimes detained arbitrarily. These actions by the government undermine media self-regulatory bodies, such as the Press Council of India (PCI) and the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC), and threaten the freedom of the press in the country.
According to the report, the Indian press is facing significant challenges, despite being valued highly in the stock market. Local and regional governments’ advertising contracts provide a major source of revenue for media outlets, blurring the line between business and editorial policy. This has allowed media executives to prioritize business needs over journalistic ethics.
The central government has also been accused of exploiting this vulnerability to control the narrative by spending over 130 billion rupees (5 billion euros) annually on ads in print and online media alone.
The report highlights the rise of “Godi media,” such as Times Now and Republic TV, which mix populism and pro-BJP propaganda, as a significant threat to India’s traditional model of a pluralist press. RSF notes that the Indian press is facing harassment and influence from various sources, which is putting its independence at risk.
RSF’s report highlights the lack of diversity in Indian mainstream media. The report states that senior positions in journalism and media executive roles are predominantly held by Hindu men from upper castes, leading to a bias in media content. Shockingly, women make up less than 15% of the participants in major evening talk shows.
During the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, some TV hosts even went as far as to blame the Muslim minority for the spread of the virus. Despite this, the report also notes that there are alternative examples of media outlets such as Khabar Lahariya. The media outlet is composed entirely of female journalists from rural areas and from ethnic or religious minorities, showcasing the diversity that exists within Indian society.
According to the report, India is among the most dangerous countries for journalists with an average of three to four journalists losing their lives every year in connection with their work. The country is marred by various forms of physical violence towards journalists, including police violence, attacks by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal gangs or corrupt officials.
Hindutva supporters, who subscribe to the far-right Hindu ideology, launch aggressive online attacks against any opposing views. Such coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder are even more violent when directed towards women journalists, who are often subjected to the posting of their personal data online to further incite violence.
The situation is especially worrying in Kashmir, where reporters are frequently harassed by the police and paramilitary forces, and some are subjected to prolonged “provisional” detention for several years.