India has dropped two places on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders and is now ranked 142 out of a total 180 countries.
Norway leads the list fourth year in a row and North Korea is ranked in the last place.
India’s position in this year’s index, the report said, is heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir. The Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution in August last year and imposed a communication blackout for several months. The government made it “virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison,” the report added.
Ironically, the report was released just a day after the J&K Police was accused of targeting two journalists in Kashmir.
Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist from Kashmir, has been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror law that carries a jail term of up to seven years. The FIR read that the police received information “through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquillity”.
Talking to Shafaq Shah on Monday for HuffPost India, Zahra said she was just uploading her professional work. “I don’t know what is going to happen. They can arrest me, do anything. I am clueless, I don’t know what to say, how to react.”
The J&K Police also registered an FIR against a story published in The Hindu last week, and called its Srinagar reporter, Peerzada Ashiq, in for questioning at least twice.
The Reporters Without Borders report went on to say that “there have been constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.” It also said that the pressure on media to toe the government line has increased since Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the 2019 general elections with an overwhelming majority.
“Those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate,” the report said.
The New York Times had noted in a report earlier in April that the Modi government has imposed the strictest restrictions on foreign journalists in decades. “Visas have been tightened, and foreign journalists have been banned from hotbeds of unrest such as northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir,” the report said.
The Press Freedom Index report also said that the “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers are alarming and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered” and that these campaigns are particularly virulent when the targets are women.
Criminal prosecutions, the report said, are often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities.
Journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested in June last year over a Twitter post on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. He was released on bail after a Supreme Court directive. Lucknow Police lodged an FIR against him again this month for making alleged “objectionable remarks” about Modi and Adityanath on social media, reported The Wire. The complaint was filed by a local BJP leader Shashank Shekhar Singh.