On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day two months ago, I had summarised the results of two surveys on press freedom around the world. India had fared badly in both. Although I had not explicitly said so, it was clear from the way I had presented the details that I had found the surveys’ methodology sound and their results credible.
A reader, Akhil Oka, however, had problems with both of these things. First, he disagreed with the results. “Our media is free enough,” he said. “Look at the number of news channels India has. I doubt whether any other country has so many debates and sting operations. I doubt that many countries will allow the voice of the opposition to come out so freely. I believe that the government should be credited for ensuring an atmosphere for a free press, which is one of its rare achievements.”
My overall response is that I would have to undertake a rigorous academic study to evaluate the state of press freedom in India. Given that this is not possible, I have to trust established organisations’ conclusions, and those surveys were indeed conducted by reputable institutions that have done this work for years.
To address the specifics one by one, first, I don’t think the number of publications (or channels) necessarily has a relation to how free the press is or to how diverse its political and economic opinions are.
Second, I’m not sure that either the reader or I can say with any authority whether India has or does not have more debates and stings than other countries or how easy or difficult it is in other countries for anti-establishment views to be published or aired. Moreover, it is not only the government that is in a position to curb press freedom, but other powerful lobbies too.
In any case, we cannot go on our hunches. We have to depend on the systematic research of organisations that have the necessary resources and expertise.
If readers have details about or online links to other research that paints a more flattering picture of Indian press freedom, please email this to me.
About the methodology, the reader felt that one of the surveys was wrong to have factored in Kapil Sibal’s announcement in December that the government should screen social networking sites for communally sensitive content. “Clearly, no one has pointed out to the survey that the minister in question later ruled out the implementation of [his plan],” the reader said.
Here the reader is on a stronger wicket. It is true that the government released a statement in May clarifying that it had no intention of regulating content. And it did this because of an outcry in the press. Still, although Sibal’s ill-conceived ideas were stillborn (unlike his plans for the IIT entrance exam), it reflects his mindset.
For a detailed analysis of this, readers can read Geeta Seshu’s excellent pieces on internet censorship in the Media Freedom section of thehoot.org, a site dedicated to issues concerning the media in South Asia. Indeed, this section also documents violations of media freedoms all over the country, which might lead the reader to less sceptical of the survey results.
But there is one thing he said that I can’t agree with more: “Instead of being oversensitive, the press should use its resources to increase the quality of its content.”