The party is over for India’s ‘presstitutes’
There is little doubt that one of India’s greatest assets -- freedom of speech -- is under threat today.
Some may see this as a gross exaggeration, but as a journalist who has worked under authoritarian, yet often democratic regimes across Africa and Asia for almost two decades, the signs are clearly recognisable.
I witnessed this under Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya, Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia and Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka. The modus operandi is formulaic -- with varying levels of subtlety and intensity.
It starts with less-than-creative but effective public insults directed at the media -- and which pander to populist attitudes towards the press. Then comes the singling out and public shaming of media outlets and reporters.
Reporting from Ethiopia in the early 2000’s, for example, I was arrested, placed under surveillance, threatened with deportation, and harassed with phone calls every time I reported a story which the government at that time did not like.
While during my reporting trips to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the civil conflict against the Tamil Tigers, I was followed by intelligence officials, my sources harassed, and local colleagues warned and threatened.
In India over the last three years, the environment for journalists is beginning to follow the same pattern -- and so it came as no surprise this week to find India’s rating in a global index measuring press freedom dropping three places.
India slipped to 136 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders -- placing it in the same category as nations such as Myanmar, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Palestine, the Philippines and South Sudan.
Since 2014, the crackdown on the press has - like in many countries - been built around a single narrative: Those who oppose the government of an issue are “anti-national.” Journalists have been branded “presstitutes”, “bazaaru” and “sickular” by senior politicians.
Like many female journalists on social media, I have been insulted, bullied and even threatened with rape for highlighting failures by the state -- from bringing peace to Kashmir, to curbing violence against women to allowing the displacement of impoverished tribals to make way from coal mining firms.
Stories on the marginalisation of India’s minority Muslim attract the most responses which are generally along the lines of “You are Bin Laden’s Begum”, “Go to Pakistan if you don’t like it here” and “Jihadi lover get out of this country.”
Feedback, comments and opinions are welcomed by journalists -- we want to engage and debate, we want to understand the other side of the story, as only then will we be in a position to improve our coverage and strive for impartiality.
But when the comments come thick and fast -- and are bigoted, sexist, racist, and packed with offensive and sometimes lewd language, you begin to wonder whether it is even worth debating.
As Reporters Without Borders rightly points out many journalists in India - myself included -- are now exercising an unparalleled level of self censorship in the world’s largest democracy.
“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” the Paris-based group said in its report published on Wednesday.
“Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”
But what India, and many other countries where populist parties promoting a nationalist agenda, are failing to recognise is that a free and independent media is essential in a healthy democracy - where questions must be asked, issues should be debates and policies are required to constantly evolve.
I am sure many will accuse me of having a biased view-point as a foreign journalist. And perhaps they are right -- but they are free to criticise me -- and if this is indeed the world’s largest democracy -- then every opinion matters and every voice counts.
Nita Bhalla is the South Asia Chief Correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the humanitarian arm of the Reuters News Agency. She covers a range of issues including climate change, women’s rights, human trafficking and slavery, land rights and disasters and conflicts.
The views expressed are personal