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India Ranks Low on Media Freedom Index
May 04, 2015

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has ranked India 135th out of 180 countries in its 2015 press freedom index for acts of censorship, like Al-Jazeera being banned from broadcasting in India for five days from 22 to 27 April, 2015. Strangely, few newspapers and TV channels reported this in India. RWB condemned the Indian government for the ban. ‘The sanction should never have been imposed on Al-Jazeera and just reflects the government’s growing intolerance of any journalism it does not agree with,’ said Benjamin Ismail, the head of RWB’s Asia-Pacific desk.

‘The Indian government has every right to state its position on this border, and it does so frequently, but there is no justification for censoring the different viewpoints that are reflected in the media. We call for the immediate resumption of broadcasting by Al-Jazeera.’

Al-Jazeera had published a map of India showing Pakistan and Indian administered territories distinctly.

In May 2011, the organization says, the Indian customs department forced The Economist to alter 28,000 copies of its 21 May issue before permitting their distribution in India. It contained a map showing the territory claimed by India and Pakistan without taking sides.

Disclosure of Sources

RWB said the Andaman police arrested and beat three members of the Karen community in November 2014 to force them to confess their alleged complicity with two French journalists who had entered a reserve of the aboriginal Jarawa tribals. Saw Santom, Saw Awenger and Saw Safmi, were held and beaten by the police chief of Mayabunder, it said, for helping Alexandre Dereims and Claire Beilvert with their documentary.  

The authorities were alerted when a trailer of the documentary went up on the web along with photos taken during the reporting trip. The reporters had violated the Aboriginal Tribes Protection Act of 2012. RWB said the Andaman authorities were reportedly planning to seek the help of Interpol in pursuing the case.

It was ‘unacceptable for police to launch a witch hunt to punish those who assist the media’ Ismail said. ‘Officials have to recognize journalists’ right not to reveal their sources.’

The French reporters and those who assisted them may be on thin legal grounds as they had broken the law.  RWB admitted the violation, but said ‘human rights issues raised by their documentary make it a work of public interest. Consequently, their actions may be justified under international law.’

Kashmir Assembly Elections

RWB has recorded several instances of violation of media freedom during the Kashmir assembly elections between 7 April and 12 May, 2014.

Sheikh Inayet, a local correspondent of Times Now and Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, a reporter for the Sharhebeeb Times  were covering a party meeting in Bandipora on 19 April when they were attacked and badly injured by members of the SOG, police officers and reservists, RWB said.

Javed Dar, a photojournalist of Xinhua News, was attacked and injured by police in Kulgam on 24 April, while the windows of the car of the journalist accompanying him, Farooq Javed Khan, were smashed, it added.

Shabnam Fayz of Munsif TV and Aadil Umar Shah of Voice TV had to be hospitalized after being beaten by police while covering protests in Pulwama, on 24 April, RWB said in its report.

Blasphemy

In January 2014, Jitendra Prasad Das, the sub-editor of the Oriya-language daily, Samaj, was arrested in connection with the publication of a picture of the Prophet Mohammed. ‘We regret that Samaj did not protect this young journalist by taking responsibility for publishing the picture. This attitude is indicative of the pressure under which it was placed and the self-censorship it feels forced to adopt.’ RWB said.

Muslims had demonstrated before the newspapers offices in Cuttack, Balasore, Rourkela and Kendrapada, demanding a public apology. Although editor Satya Ray published an apology in the newspaper, protesters ransacked its Balasore office and torched its Rourkela office.

As the person supposedly responsible for the inclusion of the picture, Das was arrested at the newspaper’s headquarters in Cuttack on a charge of ‘hurting religious sentiments,’ RWB said.

When the entire editorial staff told the police that they should all be arrested, the police said they singling out Das just to defuse street tension. He was nonetheless taken before a judge.

RWB noted that the National Union of Journalists' secretary- general Prasanna Mohanty had criticized the Samaj management for giving Das’ name to the police instead of taking collective responsibility.

An FMP View

Some of the incidents mentioned by RWB fall into a grey zone. For instance, the French journalists cannot claim media freedom to walk into a tribal reserve which is out of bounds for outsiders. But if human rights violations were indeed taking place, would the authorities have allowed them access and indicted themselves?

The depiction of India’s boundaries is another sensitive issue.  The fact that an Arab channel was involved perhaps made the Indian authorities more uncomfortable.

‘India is meant to be a democracy that approves of freedom of speech," John Micklethwait, editor in chief of The Economist, had told AFP after it was forced to put stickers manually on the Kashmir map in its May 2011 issue.  India’s ‘attitude on the issue is much more hostile than either Pakistan or China’, he said.  But China protests whenever an Indian government leader visits Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims.

The publication of the Prophet’s picture was a bold but foolish act, as Indian authorities do not have a record of upholding freedom of speech when it comes to religious issues. So all citizens are subject to what one community considers as blasphemy. Other religious communities are also quick to take offence and urge censorship. An allegation of ‘hurt sentiments’ is enough to trigger police action.   

India has become a difficult place for journalists to operate. The few instances which RWB mentions do not cover the harassment and hate which journalists routinely face from right-wing Internet trolls. Coverage of right wing violence, or of violation of the rights of Muslims citizens to live where they wish (like a neighbourhood in Bhavnagar, Gujarat), questioning the reports of alleged mass conversions, interrogating the arrest and imprisonment of Muslims on thin or no evidence for alleged acts of terrorism, investigation into possible acts of terrorism by Hindutva groups and doubting the ‘clean chit’ of courts to leaders implicated in the 2002 Gujarat riots is met with derision. ‘Sickular,’ ‘news traders,’ ‘bazaaru,’ and ‘presstitutes,’ are some of the abuses.

India has risen up RWB’s freedom of media index, from 140 in 2013 to 135 now. Other countries of South Asia fare worse. Bangladesh is at 146, Pakistan is ranked 158 and Sri Lanka 165. But India continues to be a difficult place for journalists. Itis not just the political establishment; even media owners do not like outspoken editors and reporters.       

(Image is that of notice posted by Al-Jazeera on its screen following India's ban on it. Photo credit: Reporters Without Borders). 

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