In 2013, when India’s rank in the World Press Freedom Index dropped sharply from 131 to 140, Times of India’s headline, “India drops to 140th rank in press freedom, lowest since 2002” raised concerns about the degree of press freedom in the “world’s biggest democracy”. In 2017, India is ranked 136 but the newspaper that earlier took a lead in reporting the story, doesn’t want to talk about it. Why are sections of Indian media reluctant to share the details of press freedom in India?

Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) compiles The World Press Freedom Index every year that ranks 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It is a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country.

In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, India ranked 136 out of 180, down three points from last year. India’s ranking since last 10 years has been low, falling steadily since 2010 largely due to the violence faced by reporters in the field and investigative journalists particularly in troubled areas. The lowest rank was 140 in 2013 and 2014. There was a slight improvement for two years before a fall again in 2017

YEAR 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
RANK 136 133 136 140 140 131 122 105

Coming back to the question, why are sections of Indian media reluctant to share the details of press freedom in India? The rank in 2017 is not the lowest that India has seen. Why this reluctance to share details?

The answer perhaps lies in self-censorship by the media in view of both the falling rank and the words that the report had to say about India. In 2016, when there was a slight improvement in the rank, RSF had highlighted the concern about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s indifference to the threats and problems faced by journalists. In the 2017 report, the “indifference” had become a “threat”. The 2017 report specifically mentions the “threat from Modi’s nationalism” in the context of press freedom. The key point “self-censorship” by mainstream media can be seen in how the report itself was covered

Here is what RSF said about press freedom in India:

Threat from Modi’s nationalism

With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship. The government has also introduced new foreign funding regulations to limit international influence. Coverage of regions that the authorities regard as sensitive, such as Kashmir, continues to be very difficult, and there are no protective mechanisms. On the first day of a wave of protests in Kashmir in July 2016, the Internet was cut by the military and was often interrupted thereafter to prevent communication between protesters and prevent coverage by the media and citizen journalists. Journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent.

Looking at how the media covered the story:

The reluctance of some sections of the media to report details of India’s low ranking in World Press Freedom Index is telling. Only a handful of the media shared the full details behind India’s dismal rank. Others shared in part, skipping out the criticism. Yet others tried to twist the conclusions drawing attention to happenings in other parts of the world. And then there were those who carried the story and deleted it as an afterthought.

The ones who covered it in full…

Hindustan Times had comprehensive coverage of the fall in ranking and the reasons behind it. It quoted RSF about the threat from Modi’s nationalism and carried extracts from the description.

The Telegraph also carried a comprehensive story.

The Hindu also carried the news of “India three points down to 136 in World Press Freedom Index”. While it didn’t explicitly mention the phrase “threat from Modi’s nationalism” it carried the rating and also its description, quoting RSF.

Indian Express did not carry a separate story on the World Press Freedom Index but covered the India’s rank and extracts from the RSF write-up as a part of its breaking down news article.

The ones who skipped details of the criticism…

India today reported India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index without any explanation or concerns raised RSF.

Financial Express also mentioned only the rank without any explanation but it combined the story with the Hoot report about the violence faced by the journalists in the past 16 months.

The ones who gave it a different spin…

Online portal tried to give the story a different spin by talking about issues in other parts of the world and beheading of journalists by ISIS. It went on to elaborate on PM Modi’s unwavering commitment to freedom of press without any mention of the concerns highlighted by the RSF.

Interestingly Zee News conducted a DNA test on the report and tried to explain what freedom of press means and why India ranks low. The video did not cover the specific concerns raised by RSF like “Modi’s nationalism”, but gave an overview of what is wrong with the media, including the nexus of sections of the media with politicians and corporate houses and the problem with fake news. This video became the target of a parody video by Newslaundry highlighting incidents when Zee News themselves were an example of what is wrong with the media.

The ones who deleted the story…

Times of India perhaps had the most comprehensive coverage of the World Press Freedom Index in their article with the headline “Threat from Modi’s nationalism” leads to abysmal rank for India in “press freedoms” report. Ironically, on May 3rd, which is the International Press Freedom day, the article was found deleted. You can read more about it in this report by Newslaundry.

Deletion of the article by Times of India is puzzling. Their website still carries the detailed coverage they gave to the index in previous years. In 2016, TOI even carried an infographic to show the status of freedom of press in India and how it had improved from 140 in 2014 to 136 in 2015 to 133 in 2014.

Economic times too had covered the Index in previous years but deleted the story this year.

The only mention of press freedom on Times of India website is PM Modi’s tweet on the World Press Freedom day saying free and vibrant press is vital for democracy.

The extent of self-censorship shown by some sections of the media in sharing details of India’s rank in the World Press Freedom Index is disturbing. By blocking out the story completely or sharing only selective aspects of it, they have shown how uncomfortable they are about reporting stories criticizing the growth of radical nationalism under the current government. A free and vibrant press is indeed essential for democracy. And the way the Indian media covered the story shows us why India ranked a low 136 out of 180.