Pointing out that the right to dissent should be the central focus of press freedom, independent journalist P. Sainath struck a dissenting note in the report submitted by the Index Monitoring Cell (IMC), set up by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry with stakeholders, to improve India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index and to evolve an objective yardstick to gauge media freedom.
“The right to dissent is very central...You know there are people filing FIRs and taking legal action against journalists (and other citizens) under the Epidemic Act, Disaster Act, sedition laws. We are shutting down the Internet for six months or more for whole regions,” Mr. Sainath made this observation, in his 12-page dissent note, along with three indices with a complete list of journalists, activists and stand-up comedians who have been arrested and intimidated by the State in the last one year.
Mr. Sainath pointed out that the report failed in its objective to analyse the World Press Freedom Index (of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders or RSF), and India’s performance in it with a view to identify areas of strengths and concern related to press freedom in India. To draw attention to the stranglehold of several laws on press freedom, Mr. Sainath pointed out 52-media related laws and their misuse by the State in intimidating journalists, adding that there was a complete lack of accountability of the state in the misuse of laws.
The 15-member committee, which had four meetings between May and December last year, has four journalists and government functionaries. Chaired by Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, Principal Director General of the Press Information Bureau, the committee has 10 government employees. Among the key recommendations is the decriminalising of defamation. India is one of the few countries in the world to criminalise defamation. The panel has also recommended that consent of the Press Council of India is a prerequisite before filing an FIR against the media or a publication.
The meeting of the panel comes in the backdrop of a steady decline in India’s ranking in press freedom. In 2020, RSF had ranked India 142nd among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index 2020. India’s rank has fallen steadily over the past decade and continues to fall. More recently, the U.S.-based Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report, 2021, had downgraded India’s status from a free country to a “partly free” country.
The IMC draft also comes in the backdrop of the operationalising of new guidelines on digital news platforms, OTT players and intermediaries; and a Group of Ministers set up with the objective of neutralising journalists critical of the present dispensation.