Threats of violence, political pressure among challenges to freedom of press in India

There are several challenges to the freedom of the press in India, including threats of violence from vested interests and pressure from political parties, experts have said, calling for greater involvement of civil society in cases pertaining to journalists.

On World Press Freedom Day, experts, including senior journalists, said that mediapersons also need to adapt to the new challenges by being more bold.

The World Press Freedom Day celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom throughout the world, defends the media from attacks on their independence and pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

It is observed on the anniversary of Declaration of Windhoek – a statement of free press principles put together by newspaper journalists in Africa during a Unesco seminar held in the Namibian city in 1991.

Sevanti Ninan, Editor, The Hoot, a website which undertakes research pertaining to the media to strengthen its independence, said there has been a decline in press freedom in the last few years.

The greater vulnerability is for journalists in districts and small towns. One reason for this that many of them are now using RTI to investigate local scams and they pose a threat to the powerful in government and in politics.

Ninan cited instances of death of three journalists covering investigative stories over the last year and said there should be a law guaranteeing press freedom, which is different from free speech.

She said committees comprising journalists and civil society members should be kept informed of police action against journalist.

The media community in India has been remiss in protecting its counterparts in the regional press.

There is no pressure group at the national level which maintains pressure on the central and state governments in cases regarding journalists. The Editors Guild and other bodies are not really proactive in this regard. The Press Council publishes reports, but they have no impact.

Ninan said that in states like Chhattisgarh, where the state is battling Maoists, journalists who try to report on incidents involving the ultras were becoming victims of state oppression.

There have been four arrests of journalists in Chhattisgarh since July 2015.

The other issue is defamation. The state government of Tamil Nadu is very active in filing defamation cases against journalists. There have been several already this year.

Threats to editorial independence come from proprietors and advertisers among others while physical threats come from a variety of sources including the state police said Ninan.

There are the usual suspects in terms of the bureaucracy being overzealous on occasions. That is one danger and the other is that the whole climate is not really conducive to press freedom. Because, if you narrow down the national ideal to things like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and other things in a similar vein, you are constricting the room for free opinion.

Senior journalist and political commentator Kuldip Nayar sys that the terms of employment of journalists have changed and this “does not allow journalists to be free”. The “sword of the contract system hangs over the head of journalists,” he said.

Nayar said there were attempts to politicize the news and evils such as “paid news” had cropped up.

He said journalists should make use of tools of such as RTI and face the challenges boldly.

But of course there is little help from the civil society to take up the cases of journalists who take a stand.

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