India has slipped to the 161st rank in the Press Freedom Index. The abysmal ranking of India marks a further deterioration from the 150th spot it occupied in last year's index. The World Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which claims to be an international non-profit organization governed by principles of democratic governance.
India's performance in the world press index has gone from bad to worse with a ranking of 133 in 2016 slipping to 161 out of 180 in 2023, registering the steepest decline of 11 points. The country scored 36.62 in the index.
In India, the mainstream media is owned by wealthy businessmen close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to a scathing report on World Press Freedom Day. The report argues that this is particularly the case in "hybrid" regimes such as India (161st) where journalists are subjected to intimidation. "At the same time, Modi has an army of supporters who track down all online reporting regarded as critical of the government and wage horrific harassment campaigns against the sources. Caught between these two forms of extreme pressure, many journalists are, in practice, forced to censor themselves," the report states.
The Press Freedom Index assesses the level of freedom available to journalists and media outlets in each country by evaluating various factors such as the legal environment, political influences, censorship, violence against journalists, and access to information. It has been published annually since 2002, with the organization regularly reviewing its criteria and revising its ranking methodology.
The Index assigns a score to each country on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing the lowest level of press freedom and 100 representing the highest level of press freedom. These scores are based on data gathered by Reporters Without Borders and its network of correspondents, as well as information provided by other non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, and other intergovernmental organizations.
The Press Freedom Index highlights the top and worst performers based on their scores. For the seventh year running, Norway topped the list with a score of 89.91. It was followed by Ireland, Denmark (3rd), Sweden (4th), and Finland (5th) as the top countries with excellent press freedom indexes.
On the other end of the spectrum, North Korea remained at the bottom of the list among the 180 countries that were evaluated. Russia, another major global player, was ranked at the 164th position, down from 155 last year.
Nepal was the only neighbour of India to rank in the top 100 countries, coming in at 95th place, although it slipped considerably from its 76th ranking in the previous edition. However, an indicator of the escalation of press freedom in India is that Pakistan replaced India at 150th place, showing improvement from the previous year's 157th ranking. Sri Lanka also performed better than India, securing the 135th spot. India can take solace in the fact that it is still ranked slightly better than its neighbors, with Bangladesh at the 163rd position and Myanmar at the 173rd spot. China was ranked at the 175th position.
Arfa Khanam Sherwani, a journalist with The Wire, spoke to The Mooknayak and agreed that press freedom is under threat in India. She stated, "In the last 9 years, politics has had a significant impact on the media, with 90% of the media becoming part of the government's propaganda and publicity. Other journalists are intimidated by threats of imprisonment and being strangled financially." She added that it does not surprise her that such a thing is happening in a country which the Prime Minister claims is the "mother of democracy," as the media's democracy is in the same state.
Regarding Alternate media, she views it as a ray of hope and a byproduct of mainstream media's submission to the government, but warns that it only acts as a painkiller for the wound inflicted by the mainstream media. Even though the alternate media reaches some sections, the issue is much more substantial.
Meena Kotwal, the founder and editor-in-chief of 'The Mooknayak,' believes lack of inclusivity a major reason behind the falling rank. She says, the Dalit and Adivasi communities are not responsible for the ranking as they do not control the media. She suggested that the reason for the decline in India's press freedom ranking is due to learned and discerning people turning away from the mainstream media as they recognize the propaganda and feel dissatisfied with it. She added that the ranking is irrelevant for marginalized sectors of society as their issues have not been raised previously, regardless of the government in power. Nonetheless, she expressed optimism regarding the marginalized communities' finding their voice through alternate media, citing the Oxfam report findings that stated The Mooknayak as the most diverse alternate media platform.
The World Press Freedom Index has faced criticism, and there are arguments against the methodology and criteria used by Reporters without Borders, emphasizing that the approach may fall short of capturing the complexities and nuances of media freedom in various nations. This is particularly the case in developing countries with complex power dynamics, cultural differences, and socio-economic factors that influence press freedom. Moreover, critics have pointed out that the ranking does not consider the actual experiences and conditions faced by journalists on the ground, which may differ from the legal framework and constitutional provisions. Therefore, while the index ranking is a valuable tool, it must be taken with a grain of salt, and proper contextualization is needed to comprehend the state of media freedom in different countries fully.
Sanjay Dwivedi, the Director-General of India’s premier media institute, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, has a contrasting opinion on the matter. He disagrees with the survey results, stating that "the surveys of foreign agencies are not always reliable and aim to tarnish the image of India through different reports, like on human rights violations, press freedom, or the happiness index in the country." He criticized the fact that the survey rankings positioned India's battered neighboring countries as happier than India itself and how credible the survey findings could be under such circumstances. He added that India is a democratic country, and if there is no press freedom or happiness, then where in the world it exists? He suggested that he does not know on what basis the surveys are executed, but their objective seems to tarnish India's image. Moreover, he hinted that a narrative was instilled during the corona period against the country and that he does not believe that India has no press freedom.
World Press Freedom Day is recognized on May 3 every year since 1993 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted this day to mark the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration by UNESCO in 1991. The declaration aimed to promote the development of a free, independent, and pluralistic press. It recognized the fundamental importance of the media in informing societies and affirmed that the free flow of information was a cornerstone of democracy.
In 2023, the theme for World Press Freedom Day is "Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for All Other Human Rights," highlighting the crucial role that freedom of expression plays in promoting and protecting human rights. It also emphasizes the need to defend and promote an open and independent media environment where journalists can work without fear of violence, harassment, or censorship. The theme aims to raise awareness about the importance of press freedom, the challenges facing journalists today, and the role that the media plays in advancing human rights and democratic values globally.