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HindustanTimes Thu,28 Aug 2014

Censorship to political pulls, is Indian media in crisis?

Hindustan Times  New Delhi, May 02, 2014
First Published: 23:27 IST(2/5/2014) | Last Updated: 00:20 IST(3/5/2014)

Eight journalists were killed in India in 2013. This was a jump from the five killed in the preceding year, and three in 2011. If there were 74 instances of censorship in 2012, the following year saw 94 such instances — with the internet being the single biggest casualty of the clamp-down. Also, 19 journalists were attacked in the year.

These are some of the findings of Free Speech Hub of The Hoot, a media watch-dog website which closely tracks threats and attacks on free media.

Confirming the perception that all is not well with the media, India has also slipped down further to the 78th position in the Annual Index of Media Freedom, due to ‘increased interference in content by media owners in the run-up to the 2014 elections’.

This puts India in the category of countries with only ‘partially free media’. In the World Press Freedom Index, put out by Reporters Without Borders, India remains in the 140th position, in the ‘red zone’.

2013 also saw the closure of publications, large-scale retrenchment in key media firms, sexual harassment in newsrooms, axing of professional editors, and a perception that the line between news and opinion was getting increasingly blurred, especially in the electronic media, and there was a visible tilt — either due to pressure or choice — towards certain parties over others.

On World Press Freedom Day, HT asked civil society figures if the Indian media is in crisis.

Outlook Group editorial chairman, Vinod Mehta, links it to the political transition. “There is a sense that politicians are out to get the media. One of the worst things is self-censorship in anticipation of what is to come. It may appear to some that we can say what we want to, or write what we feel like. But behind-the-scenes, the media is falling into place.”

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Mehta believes there is underlying ‘fear’ about what Narendra Modi would do. “There is an attempt to pigeonhole independent journalists into whether they are pro or anti Modi.” But Mehta does not spare the Congress either. “The Congress is getting bad habits too, and wants total support.”

If subtle forms of political pressure represent one element of the crisis, the direct censorship is another. This takes the form of certain laws like Section 66 (a) of the Information Technology Act, which punishes persons for ‘sending out offensive messages’ which causes ‘inconvenience’ or ‘annoyance’, as well other orders.

Apar Gupta, a lawyer who is fighting on behalf of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties to challenge Section 66 (a)’s constitutional validity in the SC, says, “There is a definite increase in attempts to censor online content, even if it does not always translate into successful censorship. This is visible in the increase in government requests as well as court orders to take down content.”


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