Narendra Modi, India's prime minister Image Credit: Bloomberg

In a list on press freedom released recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ranked India’s position as 142 out of the 180 countries. The first is Norway. The last is North Korea. India ranks two steps above its favorite whipping boy, Pakistan.

The much bombed and embattled Afghanistan enjoys more freedom. India’s consistent low ranking in free speech in recent years has provoked outrage from the intelligentsia. Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, rubbished the report.

RSF compiles data on the basis of a questionnaire. This year it has asked 87 questions. ‘A team of specialists, each assigned to a different geographical region, keeps a detailed tally of abuses and violence against journalists and media outlets …The Abuses indicator for each country is calculated on the basis of the data about the intensity ( italics mine) of abuses and violence against media actors during the period evaluated.’

To be certain, India’s press freedom is not in the best state of health. The truth is that it never has been, whether the party in power is the BJP or the Congress


As in any survey of this type, the subjective perception of the respondents has a great deal of weight attached to it. That’s why it would seem for a right-winger in India that Afghanistan ( Rank 121), a country whose many factions are quick to take offense and resort to painful retaliatory measures, enjoys more freedom of speech than India, or for that matter, Myanmar (Rank 128), ruled by the highly sensitive Aung San Suu Kyi.

Clearly, a country is as anti-free speech as its tolerance threshold. If your threshold for perception of offense is high, you are likely to say you enjoy in your country more right to free speech.

India has, relatively speaking, a low tolerance level, since it is still a democracy (more than 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines, 178 TV news channels, according to one report), it is quicker to take offense. Which is probably why India finds itself at the bottom half of the list.

But that does not justify the recent spate of arrests and legal proceedings against journalists and activists. Last week alone two journalists from Kashmir were booked under the dire Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

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Masrat Zahra’s offense was to describe a separatist, shot dead in 2016, as ‘shaheed’ (martyr) in a social media post. Gowhar Geelani, the other Kashmir journalist, was booked under similar charges as Zahra for social media posts ‘prejudicial to integrity, sovereignty, and security of India.’

Last month, elsewhere, human rights activists, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, were arrested on, what else, ‘charges related and prejudicial to national integrity and sovereignty.’

But it is not always the State. Last week, again, Arnab Goswami, the star anchor, and owner of the combatively patriotic Republic TV was attacked by two men, whom Goswami stated were Congress workers sent by that party’s leadership to intimidate him.

The channel portrayed Goswami, one of the most powerful media people in the country, as a victim of the attack on press freedom.

The incident, unlike the ones that took place in Kashmir which is ruled directly by the BJP-led Indian government, occurred in the state of Maharashtra, where the Opposition, an alliance of the Shiva Sena, the National Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar, and the Congress-led by Sonia Gandhi, is in power.

Attacks on press

There have been other arrests and even killings (a journalist and an activist Gauri Lankesh, for instance, was murdered in 2017) in the recent past. In Lankesh’s case, the prime accused, Amol Kale, who is associated with Hindutva organizations, was arrested.

In 2017, NDTV had its office raided by the CBI for reasons of financial fraudulence, which the company denied vehemently. In 2018, the office of The Quint (rather critical of the Modi government ) was raided by tax officials.

Recently, three senior editors had to resign from a pro-government TV channel for carrying a critical report of the prime minister.

But in the same breath, last year, the progressive Leftist government of Kerala arrested two youngsters, Alan and Thaha, under the UAPA, for alleged Maoist connections. By and large Liberal India has chosen not to focus attention on the issue.

There is no dearth of instances to validate the low RSF ranking of India. The question is how much the State does on its own in limiting speech freedom and how non-State players (specific rights groups, Right-Wing Hindu activists, influencers, lobbyists, religious supremacists, etc ) interpret that freedom.

For instance, in 2018, Achyuta Nanda Sahu, a camera person with Doordarshan (the government-owned TV channel) was killed along with two policemen in a Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district on 30 October 2018.

There was no outcry, proportionate to the general fury incited by anti-press State intervention, from the free speech advocates.

Article 19 of the Constitution ensuring free speech ‘of all citizens,’ though not specifically that of the press, too, is problematic. It states that free speech is conditional on the integrity of the country.

This writer is a free speech absolutist and believes most other basic rights flow from it. But this is not a popular position as it presupposes the right to offend as integral to free speech.

Indeed, it is much less taxing to see press freedom as primarily endangered by the power-interests of the State. It would be stirring a hornet’s nest to observe that free speech in India is just as much compromised by media houses with conflicting interests, proprietorial priorities and that they would therefore naturally be encouraging the system in general and journalists, in particular, to engage in self-censorship.

Since journalists have no backing of the Indian government’s welfare plans in case of a job loss, they would not have much choice in the matter anyway.

To be certain, India’s press freedom is not in the best state of health. The truth is that it never has been, whether the party in power is the BJP or the Congress.

But, as mentioned, it is not just the State that is censoring news and views. Despite the non-binary complexities attending the situation, the Modi government, with the kind of nearly tyrannical strength it commands in parliament, and the support of Big Business outside it, could show restraint.

Nothing remotely threatening their sway looms on the horizon. Not even a virus. They could get more frank and friendly with the press. And with surprising results.

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist and writer based in India