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Democracy Under Threat

Journalists around the world are seeing increased fear and violence in their line of work as media freedom faces further decline, according to data published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last week. That grim prognosis accompanies the release of the 2019 World Press Freedom Index which analyses the state of the media worldwide. It rated 180 countries as “problematic”, “difficult” or “very serious.” Just eight percent have a media climate considered “good”. India, which prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, is ranked a poor 140 among 180 countries in the Index. The report notes that in India “where critics of Hindu nationalism are branded as anti-Indian, six journalists were murdered in 2018”. It also states that the current election period, where there is a high degree of political and social polarisation, is particularly dangerous for journalists.

China is ranked the lowest but the US fall of three spots to 48 is notable as it marks the first time the country’s media climate has been labelled “problematic” in the index. “Democracy is in great danger,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Halting this cycle of fear and intimidation is a matter of the utmost urgency of all people.” Adds Cedric Alviani, director, RSF: “It’s getting worse. Democracies seem to be giving up, while increasingly authoritarian governments are silencing the media.”

Jaitley Jumps In…

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s thinly veiled threat against certain publications and his open support for Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, facing charges of sexual harassment, has raised eyebrows in political circles. It is highly unusual for a central minister to interfere in a case that is being probed by slamming the media. The media platforms are Scroll.in, The Wire, The Caravan and The Leaflet. Jaitley’s intervention contains a threat of contempt of court proceedings against those who have reported the contents of the affidavit. For a cabinet minister to openly recommend a course of action to the court is extremely rare. Jaitley’s post said: “When four digital media organisations with an unparalleled track record of ‘institutional disruption’ send similar questionnaires to the Chief Justice of India, there is obviously something more than meets the eye.” Which could also be said about his own actions.

Kerala’s “Free” Press

The Election Commission’s imposed cap of Rs 70 lakh, coupled with a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that all candidates publicise criminal cases against them through newspaper and TV advertisements for three consecutive days, would ordinarily have put MP aspirants in a spot considering the exorbitant ad rates. But for candidates of major political parties in the state, that is no cause for worry since their parties all own newspapers and TV channels. K Surendran, the BJP candidate in Pathanamthitta, would have had to spend lakhs of rupees on the four pages that he took out to publicise the details of the 242 cases against him. Luckily, his party runs the Janmabhumi newspaper as well as Janam TV. The Congress runs the Veekshanam newspaper and Jai Hind TV, the ruling CPI(M) has the Deshabhimani paper and Kairali and People TV, the CPI has the Janayugom paper, Muslim League runs the popular Chandrika daily and a host of TV channels. That’s called the Free Press.

TV and the Vote

Suddenly, television channels seem to have woken up to the importance of the vote. Basically, it is a PR and marketing tool but it’s contagious, persistent and also good for democracy. Most channels have focused on a particular voting segment; Viacom18’s youth entertainment channel MTV India is encouraging youth to vote through its campaign #VoteBecauseYouCan. Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEEL) is encouraging older voters to grown-ups to vote through their “Grown Ups Go Vote” campaign. Sony Entertainment Television’s focus is on women’s participation. The campaign encourages female viewers to make it a women empowered election. Network18 has launched the initiative, Button Dabao, Desh Banao, while Network18 calls out to citizens to build a better India together. It’s adding new meaning to the phrase social responsibility.

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