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As India Slides in 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Journalists Say Ground Reality is Much Worse

As India Slides in 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Journalists Say Ground Reality is Much Worse

  • “Nobody wants to see India become a very strong dictatorship like China, but the situation is becoming more or less the same in some aspects,” Asia-Pacific Director of Reporters Sans Frontières, told a virtual Congressional Briefing.

Suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by journalists as he exited a bilateral meeting in Denmark on May 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared surprised when the scribes complained about being left out. “You weren’t allowed inside?” Modi said, feigning surprise. “Oh my God,” he added before walking away, birthing one of this morning’s top trends and memes on social media.

Modi’s response, though, is in itself a surprise, given he himself hasn’t allowed the journalists “inside” in the eight years he has been prime minister to freely interact with him and ask him questions. Instead, his interactions with so-called reporters have appeared scripted and notoriously hagiographic, bordering on the sycophantic.

Those that have stuck to the real job of journalism in India have, on the other hand, faced the fullest wrath of the Modi government and its agencies. Just this week Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), the world’s premier media watchdog, released its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, dropping India to 150th place among 180 countries, its lowest ranking ever, for the unprecedented assault on freedom of the press under Modi’s rule.

According to the RSF report, India’s record of press freedom is now so abysmal that it trails autocratic countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Nigeria. Even sheikhdoms and monarchies like UAE, Qatar and Jordan treat journalists better, according to this report.

Activists, scholars and scribes whose personal liberty remains at judiciary’s mercy, according to The Wire.

“Nobody wants to see India become a very strong dictatorship like China, but the situation is becoming more or less the same in some aspects,” Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific Director, RSF, told a virtual Congressional Briefing held in Washington, D.C. on May 4. He added that India’s aggressive attempts to silence and imprison Kashmiri journalists were similar to China’s treatment of Tibetan journalists.

Shockingly, or perhaps not, the Modi government has tried to manipulate its image on press freedom. “Very unhappy” with India’s ranking on the RSF’s press freedom index, the Modi government created its own 15-member press freedom index monitoring cell. “Most of them were government people. Two were journalists who were very unhappy with the way the commission worked,” disclosed Bastard, who too had a meeting with India’s ministry of information and broadcasting.

“This monitoring cell was there to lobby us, to be nice with us so that we would give better ranking to India. But we said we have to tackle the problems very concretely. And they said no, no, you are having your western bias,” Bastard recalled. “This will give you an insight into how the government… tries to manipulate data.”

After the RSF’s report came out on May 3, I reached out to several leading Indian journalists to seek their response. What they told me suggests the ground reality is much grimmer than this RSF report suggests.

“India’s ranking in the report presents only a limited understanding of the situation,” said Ravish Kumar, one of India’s best-known journalists who has received the prestigious Magsaysay Award and has 2.3 million followers on Twitter. “If you analyze the content of the pro-Modi news media then you will find that there is no difference between the presenters of Radio Rwanda [who championed genocide] and these “godi media” news anchors. Day and night this lapdog media legitimizes a genocidal narrative, targeting Muslims.”

“Godi media,” which literally means “lap media,” is a term that has in recent years become popular as a description of the pro-Modi news media.

“Democracy in India is no longer vibrant as it used to be and it is leading to slow death,” said Ashutosh, a former managing editor of News18, a TV news station. “Free press, with a few exceptions, is a myth now in India.” He said the space for press freedom has “shrunk rapidly” since 2014 when Modi became prime minister.

“Most of the mainstream newspapers and TV channels have either willingly become an extended arm of the regime, or have been forced to toe the government line due to the weaponization of the investigating agencies of the government,” Ashutosh said.

Aniruddh Bahal, a globally renowned journalist who decades ago pioneered “sting operations” in journalism using hidden cameras to expose the high and mighty, said he was shocked that India had fallen to 150th position on the WPF Report.

In 2018,, Bahal’s news website, published an investigation on the willingness of owners of Indian news media to run right-wing propaganda for money. “The investigation exposed mainstream media owners for what they were,” Bahal said. “Our story was titled Operation 136 because that was India’s rank on the Press Freedom Index that year. In four years it has slid to 150!”

Abhisar Sharma, a renowned TV anchor and independent journalist with 1.6 million followers on Twitter, said India’s television news media was “brazenly spreading anarchy” through provocative shows that “border on riot-mongering.”

“Real journalists are threatened with income-tax cases and raids, or notes from the Enforcement Directorate, whereas the Indian version of Radio Rwanda whose behavior borders on criminality spreads brazen lies,” Sharma said. He cited two TV news channels that falsely blamed Muslims for sectarian violence in Rajasthan, and condemned the state government for failing to act against them.

Salil Tripathi, former Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said today’s India “includes an irresponsible broadcast industry that is the government’s cheerleader, editors at many publications unwilling to raise tough questions, news anchors who demand answers from the opposition for governmental failures…”

“The irony is Rajasthan is ruled by the Congress party, the national opposition. The Congress is losing out in this brazen communal politics,” Sharma said. “While anchors from News18 and the Times Group spread lies, journalist Siddique Kappan from Kerala continues to languish in jail for two years on a terror charge for a report he did not file.”

Salil Tripathi, former chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said today’s India “includes an irresponsible broadcast industry that is the government’s cheerleader, editors at many publications unwilling to raise tough questions, news anchors who demand answers from the opposition for governmental failures, and a spirited independent and feisty online media trying to keep the flame burning.”

According to Arfa Khanum Sherwani, the award-winning journalist with The Wire, said India was living in an “undeclared emergency” under Mr. Modi’s rule. “A majority of the media has switched over to the darker side and have become an extension of the government’s propaganda machinery. The last few journalists still doing their job are being intimidated and threatened with false criminal cases.” The government’s “full-spectrum assault” is putting them a news story or a tweet away from being jailed. The Wire had last year exposed how intrusive surveillance such as Pegasus was used against journalists.

Saying that there can be “no free country without a free media,” Sherwani, who has one million followers on Twitter, added that the “danger to media freedom is a danger to India’s democracy.” Journalists had now been turned into enemies of the state. “For someone like me who comes from an unpopular religious identity in today’s India, it becomes even more difficult to do my job. Being a Muslim woman journalist makes me a target of the majoritarian thugs where I have to face online harassment, rape and death threats on a daily basis.”

Seema Aazad, an activist-journalist from Allahabad who was earlier imprisoned for over two years under terror charges simply for the act of writing, said the government’s criticism had been “erased” from the mainstream news media. “This trend started with the previous government, when former home minister P. Chidambaram openly threatened journalists, triggering the arrest of 200 journalists, including me,” she said.

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Uma Shankar Singh, a prominent journalist and a winner of the prestigious Ramnath Goenka award, said while press freedom was always under attack in India, “the threat of being harassed in some way or the other, being named in FIR, getting arrested and dragged into legal (actually illegal) complications has increased manifold now.”

With this, the government aimed to “scare journalists so that they should go silent instead of raising issues of public interest and criticizing the government,” said Singh, who works with NDTV India, an independent TV news station that is a rarity in today’s India.

Atul Chaurasia, executive editor with, who’s also a recipient of Ramnath Goenka award, used sarcasm to make his point. “Being at 150th place in the World Press Freedom Report is now our goal. We are determined to sink much lower, so that the world’s 200 countries turn back and say, ‘India, why are you so far behind us?’”

Anytime anyone points out India’s democratic decline, the government’s supporters start comparing it with the goings-on in Afghanistan under the Taliban or Syria under ISIS, Chaurasia said. “We really are in a race with those who have no future.”

Shyam Meera Singh, an independent journalist charged under anti-terror law merely for tweeting, said India practiced “double standards” on press freedom. “One section of the press is free to target millions of Muslims with impunity, calling them Jihadi terrorists on television, with prime-time newscasters screaming to create hatred against Muslims,” he said. “The other section of the press has limited access and reach via independent websites and Youtube. If these news platforms make the simplest criticism, they are slapped with terrorism charges.”

Singh once wrote “Shameless Prime Minister” on his personal Facebook account criticizing Modi’s flawed Covid management. “For those three words, I was fired from my job from Aaj Tak [a leading TV news station.] Last year, I tweeted three words on anti-Muslim violence in Tripura: “Tripura is Burning”. The Tripura Police brought charges against me under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,” he added.

Singh said many journalists have to consider the possibility of “serious personal legal and personal consequences” before speaking or tweeting.

Raqib Naik, a U.S.-based Kashmiri journalist who publishes in Al Jazeera, said India’s democracy was on the “verge of collapse” with press freedom “on a ventilator” as the crackdown against journalists escalated each day. “The threat to press freedom comes also from the Hindu rightwing non-state actors (India and abroad) who are actively using violence, intimidation, online harassment, lawsuit, threats to kill, and rape to chill the free speech by forcing journalists into self-censorship,” Naik said, adding that what India had done to press freedom in Kashmir “is a tragedy altogether.”

Since August 2019, when Kashmir’s special Constitutional status was terminated, the government’s intention is to “completely dismantle the institution of the press. The rampant arrests of Kashmiri journalists are aimed to send a wider message to the overall journalistic fraternity: either toe the line or be prepared to spend the rest of your lives in jails.”

Sarita Pandey is an artist, a digital media professional, and volunteers for human rights advocacy groups. She lives in the DMV area. She posts her art on and tweets about issues she cares about at

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