KARACHI: The acquisition of media by wealthy businessmen closely aligned with political leaders and harassment of critical sources and reporters by supporters of the government has led Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to downgrade India’s press freedom ranking.

As per the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, released by RSF on World Press Freedom day, Pakistan now occupies the 150th position out of 180 countries and territories, 11 spots higher than neighbouring India, which comes in at 161.

“The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy’,” it said.

In the rankings for 2022, it was India that was ranked 150, while Pakistan came in at 157.

“Asia’s one-party regimes and dictatorships are the ones that constrict journalism the most, with leaders tightening their totalitarian stranglehold on the public discourse,” the report notes, singling out North Korea (180th), China (179th), Vietnam (178th), Myanmar (173rd) as some of the worst places for journalism in Asia.

However, it notes with concern the “acquisition of media outlets by oligarchs who maintain close ties with political leaders”, especially in India, “where all the mainstream media are now owned by wealthy businessmen close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.

The RSF report states that Modi has an army of supporters “who track down all online reporting regarded as critical of the government and wage horrific harassment campaigns against the sources. Caught between these two forms of extreme pressure, many journalists are, in practice, forced to censor themselves.”

The same trend can be found in Bangladesh (163rd), where RSF says governmental persecution of independent media has intensified in the run-up to elections that are due to be held in the coming months.

Another regional issue it highlights is the persistence of “off-limit questions and taboo subjects” that prevent journalists from working freely. “This is clearly the case in Afghanistan (152nd), where the Taliban government does not tolerate no straying from their fanatical version of Islamic law and where women journalists are in the process of being literally erased from the media landscape,” the report notes.

The RSF ranking states that overall, only 52 countries of the world can be described as providing a ‘good’ or ‘fairly good’ environment for journalism.

Red lines

The change of government in Pakistan, however, is said to have “loosened constraints on the media”, even though it continues to be among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists “with three to four murders each year that are often linked to cases of corruption or illegal trafficking and which go completely unpunished”.

Any journalist who crosses red lines is liable to be the target of in-depth surveillance that could lead to abduction and detention for varying lengths of time in the state’s prisons or less official jails, it says.

Highlighting weak protections for journalists, the report notes that the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act, passed in 2021, is conditional on reporters adopting a certain “conduct”, and those who cross the implicit lines dictated by the authorities are exposed to heavy administrative and criminal penalties — such as sedition.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2023

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