Two disturbing reports were published last week. One emerged from Washington, D.C. and the other from New Delhi. Both vividly describe the thin ice on which journalists and news organisations, for whom public interest remains the core value, are treading, and the determined state apparatus which expects journalists to behave like a choir.
Shrinking democratic space
In its annual report, Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank which produces periodic reports on issues related to democracy, political rights and civil liberties, has downgraded India’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ based on several indicators. In the Freedom House ranking system, where 100 represents a near perfect democracy, India has fallen by four points from 71 last year to 67.
It would be a missed opportunity if we were to read the report as western propaganda. It is not wise to wear a narrow governmental lens that reduces patriotism to parroting the official line. The report points out the shrinking democratic spaces in some of the major western democracies. It clearly documents how various “authoritarian actors grew bolder during 2020 as major democracies turned inward, contributing to the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom”. The report also indicates areas for course correction.
It is high time the Government of India realises that its fervent rejection of the report rings hollow. It cannot invoke federal arrangement, where ‘public order’ and ‘police’ are State subjects, to shift the onus of specific excesses onto the State governments. It is a fact that various State governments have been in the forefront of muzzling the media over the last five decades. For instance, journalists in Tamil Nadu are familiar with the breach of legislative privilege cases against journalists, where journalists and media houses got penalised for an uncodified privilege. The spate of criminal and civil defamation cases filed by governments against journalists has been well documented. But this does not mean that the Union government has become a vanguard of freedoms.
Indeed, most restrictions are created by the Union government and its desire to undermine the federal balance. From rampant Internet shutdowns to subtle warnings, the method adopted by the Government of India is more layered, more varied and more chilling in its effect than those adopted by the State governments.
Revealing the character of the state
Hence, its loud rejection of the Freedom House report fails to impress anyone — more so because the influential Group of Ministers (GoM) has suggested draconian steps to stem ‘negative narratives’ on the government.
Let us examine the nature of the language used by the GoM. It is certainly not the language that is used by people who believe in dialogue, debate and dissent, the three integral elements of democracy. In my considered opinion, the language adopted by the GoM shows the character of the new Indian state. The desire of those in power is to ensure that the writ of the government, which is monochromatic and homogenising, prevails over the polyphony of democratic voices.
The question before us is to examine, critique and confront the GoM’s report thoroughly. It would be futile to get into an argument about the intent of the journalists who participated in the deliberations held by the government. The divided journalistic cohort diverts our attention from the principle challenge before us: a government that wants only its voice to be heard, and is prepared to tweak rules and create new laws to ‘neutralise’ the negative narrative.
While rejecting the Freedom House report, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s assertion had two interesting elements. One, it said: “Discussion, debate and dissent are part of Indian democracy. The Government of India attaches highest importance to the safety and security of all residents of the country, including journalists.” It did not provide answers to any of the specific charges listed by the American organisation.
Second, on the question of Internet shutdowns, the Ministry said that such shutdowns were “only temporary”. Is it fair to call a 213-day shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir a temporary measure?
At this juncture, to defend our hard-won rights and freedoms, we need to collectively raise our voice, call out the excess of the executive, the complicity of the judiciary, and avoid the unwarranted internecine attritions among journalists and journalist organisations that is hurting public interest.