It is World Press Freedom Day and what better country to talk about it than India? Instead of how we usually talk about what Indian journalism is (and the degrading quality), let’s talk about what Indian journalism is allowed to be. India has managed to remain at the 142nd position out of 180 countries in terms of the Press Index by being one of the highest scorers in terms of press abuse. It reflects the degree of freedom that Indian journalists, print media and news channels, and netizens on social media have. This rhetoric compels me to imagine the rank of India if the index accounted for human rights violations and the quality of our journalism. I’d rather refrain from thinking anymore.
Not that it concerns anyone anymore but let’s talk about the Indian Press and freedom of speech and expression.
With the insurmountable Covid-19 crisis in India, the Indian government has been widely criticized for its desperate attempts in trying to filter India’s global image. It is more concerned about what the world hears about the Covid-19 outbreak anywhere across the 7 continents than actually looking out for its citizens. Well, people shall come and go, the government remains stable!?
Last week, the Modi government sent notices to take down around 100 “misleading” posts and block the accounts of people who were discussing the second outbreak of the pandemic and the mismanagement from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. On April 23, at the behest of the Indian government, Twitter acted on the protocol and blocked over 50 tweets from celebrities, MPs, MLAs of opposition parties, journalists, and others criticizing the mishandling of the pandemic by the government. The tweets that were taken down simply mentioned the upsurge in cases and deaths, the shortage of medicines and medical equipment, accompanied by photos of Modi’s election rallies even as the Covid wave became uncontrollable. The posts also mentioned undercounting of cases, images of mass funeral pyres, patients struggling outside hospitals, and basically criticized Mr. Prime Minister. And one cannot deny that all these claims are accurate (speaking from personal experience).
Facebook restored the #ResignModi hashtag after blocking it for several hours and stated that it was a “slip-up and “not because the Indian government asked to block it.” The error was apparently caused by an algorithm or a human. It is only fair for people to not buy the story.
While the possibility of such slip-ups cannot be entirely ruled out, the Modi government has a history of shutting down critics. In my opinion, this is truly worrisome.
The government’s explanation for removing these posts is that it is controlling the spread of misinformation to curb panic while in the eyes of people it seems to be suppression and intimidation.
In the face of failures and criticism, a leader can deal with them in two ways- either by taking down the failure or taking down the criticism. Modi government is adept at doing the latter. Instructing Twitter to remove tweets that are against the government is easier than ensuring oxygen supply throughout the country, right?
Even in the past, the government was seen tightening its grips on social media by clamping down on criticism about the farmers’ protest, the Citizen Amendment Act, the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and more. Not to forget, the internet was down in Kashmir for several months to contain information which also made ground reporting extremely difficult. It has also threatened social media platforms by stating the IT laws and policies, leaving no options for them.
Although Twitter has given certain clarification, a glance at Twitter’s relationship with the Modi government proves the two are constantly in a tug of war.
In February, Twitter’s officials faced the threat of jail time for not taking down specific tweets and handles related to the farmer’s protest. Several prominent leaders endorsed Koo app—India’s Parler— in protest. Perhaps fearing loss of business, Twitter later restricted the visibility of some hashtags and penalized 500 accounts. Similarly, In 2019, Twitter faced similar threats for objectionable content but the definition of this “objectionable” content….who knows?
Facebook has earlier been accused of pandering to the Modi government, followed by the stepping down of the public policy head Ankhi Das and the allegations of being biased for BJP. Forget Press freedom, do we even have the freedom of speech?
The goal here, I suppose, is to take control of the public narrative, and consequentially, the quality of Indian journalism is dying because it is scared of being advertised as anti-national.
Indian Press has failed/ is scared to report other observations too.
For instance, in the US, the Biden government set targets, met the targets, and still stated that it is not enough. In India, the message has always been that we have constrained the virus, be it the second wave or be it the shortage of medical equipment, medical and paramedical staff, drugs, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, or vaccines. Earlier this year, the Indian government spread the message that it had beaten the virus. New cases dropped to 11,000 by mid-February, vaccines were being exported and in March the health minister said India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. How are you contradicting yourself so audaciously, dear sir?
Opinion-based tweets are being withheld. As a matter of fact, BJP Government’s grip on the mainstream media has always been this tight. Social media was acting like a boon in these times of crisis where individuals and volunteers were putting up their needs and available items for those in need, to access info and express their opinions and concerns which is dead in the mainstream mass media. When it couldn’t get any worse, UP CM Yogi Adityanath went on to say that hospitals are spreading fake info about the unavailability of hospital beds and cylinders and action must be taken against them. In an interview, Home Minister Amit Shah said that we have produced enough medical equipment, completely ignoring the shortages. It is important to know that Mr. Shah dodged the question of Kumbh Mela and election rallies running in a full-fledged manner despite skyrocketing cases.
What happens when the journalists questioning the central government leaders remind them that they are not only contesting for power in the states but also represent the centre? They are dumbed down or tagged anti-national.
Let me take a moment to put forward my rant about the government here. Let me exercise my right to speech in the face of dying media and journalism. The central government has had a series of distractions that a normal or rather a sensible government would not have had while they were facing multiple warnings of such a major calamity possibility in the country. From January last year, they were warned about the pandemic coming in, and even by the end of January and mid-February, they were too concerned about Delhi elections and riots. Where Mr. Prime Minister was busy in Namaste Trump rallies welcoming Trump and toppling the Madhya Pradesh government, the government also delayed the lockdowns without preparing for the consequences or impacts on the migrant labourers. Despite this, they had enough time after the first wave but the farmers’ bill proved to be a better distraction instead of preparing for the much expected second wave and improving the healthcare. Holding onto power has always been more important than their primary duty of protecting citizens’ lives. The first mutant was first discovered in October 2020. Britain set up genome sequencing labs in April 2020 while India set up these labs in January 2021 and the funding came in March 2021. This is not a scientifically rational response and we are paying a really cruel price for this. The response seems like an Ostrich’s head in the sand with no respect for science. A majority of statistical models predict that the peak would arrive during mid-May but we cannot even trust the data that is being allegedly underreported by at least 15 times in terms of cases and deaths. Is this the failure of democratic institutions or the populism or knee-jerk reactions?
The Election commission is equally to be blamed for this outbreak. EC is supposed to be neutral but was seen siding with BJP this time. All the parties except BJP pleaded to scrunch the elections in 1 day instead of 7 days and multiple phases and to stop campaigning but it refused to do so. Even Madras High Court last week remarked that the EC should be “booked for murder” for continuing with the political rallies during the Covid emergency.
I can still go on if allowed to. But the crux of the matter is that the media has every right to report the facts in the public interest. We need criticism in good faith, opinions, true data, contents of court hearings and to stop dramatizing and politicizing social issues.
It is the fourth pillar of democracy. A morally obligated free-flowing dialogue is what India needs. The media is responsible for formulating and expressing a collective opinion of the public and so restricting it simply means not caring about the public at all.
This world press freedom day, we don’t need anything more than FREEDOM.