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131 on the press freedom index: A wakeup call for India?

At least we can always count on Pakistan to give a little boost  to our national self-esteem.

Bangladesh has sneaked in two spots ahead of India in the just released 2011 press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders. Pakistan still trails well behind India.

India ranked number 122 in the last index. This year it’s sunk to 131 somewhere between Burundi and Angola. Pakistan at 151 is the world’s deadliest country for journalists for the second year running.

That doesn’t mean Pakistan is the worst for press freedom as a whole. Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea bring up the rear in the walk of shame. That’s because the press freedom index does not just include murders of journalists but also other factors such as intimidation, harassment, web monitoring, confiscation of newspaper issues, government crackdowns, requests to pull content from Google, media ownership and self-censorship.

At first blush, the numbers seem rather arbitrary. Can a questionnaire sent to 150 correspondents around the world and 18 freedom of expression groups really come up with some kind of absolute foolproof press ranking? Are the tensions and challenges that beset India really comparable to those faced by list-toppers Finland and Norway? As The Times of India grouses “some of the rankings make little sense. In the RWB report on press freedom, for instance, Jamaica, Namibia, and Mali are ranked in the top 25.”

So should we care?

The two young women whom the Palghar police arrested for daring to post (and like) a comment about Mumbai’s shutdown after Bal Thackeray’s death have become accidental activists for freedom of expression. PTI

Yes, but not because of a number. 131 by itself is meaningless. It’s not like all these countries sat down and took the same IIT entrance exam. India’s 131 to Bangladesh’s 129 is fairly meaningless because each country comes with its own balancing act. In Bangladesh, for instance, YouTube has been blocked since the inflammatory Prophet Muhammad videos in the name of preserving the peace.

What’s worth taking a harder look at are the trends. One year might be an off year for press freedom in any country because of a particular dramatic event. The United States fell 27 places because it arrested many journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. That does not mean we should be ringing the death knell of press freedom there.

India’s problem is not that it came 131. But that in 2010 it was 122. And in the report before that it was 105. That’s the downward slide that should give us pause. So it means that we cannot just attribute our fall to a couple of exceptional events like the murders of journalist Jyotirmoy Dey in Mumbai and Umesh Rajput in Chhattisgarh.

What’s more worrying for press freedom as a whole are incidents that make far less news, or no news at all.

David Barsamian, founder of the left-leaning Alternative Radio became a bit of a political hot potato when he was denied entry on arrival probably because of his earlier reports on touchy subjects like Kashmir. But scores of other journalists are routinely given a hard time when they come to India even when they are only coming here on a holiday. I remember an American journalist who won a reporting fellowship to cover medical tourism in India. Her visa application disappeared into limbo and the original patient she wanted to accompany to India had to leave without her. And this was for a story that was showing India in a good light, not a politically loaded piece about Kashmir or tribals being evicted by mining conglomerates.

Self censorship is a far more insidious threat than the heavy hand of the government. That at least can provoke a Twitter storm of outrage. So the two young women whom the Palghar police arrested for daring to post (and like) a comment about Mumbai’s shutdown after Bal Thackeray’s death have become accidental activists for freedom of expression. The government has booked 10 men for vandalising one of the young women’s uncle’s hospital. The chief minister has promised Press Council chairman Markandey Katju that it will take strict action against those responsible for the arrest. The UPA government wants to pretend that ignorant policemen who misuse the law are the real problem instead of the vagueness in the law that allows that misuse to happen. But the chill is already being felt. The two girls say they don’t want to ever return to social networking anymore. “I had never seen the inside of a police station before. An unknown woman even slapped me twice,” said one of them to TOI.

Self censorship is a silent killer whether that censorship stems from pleasing governments or not upsetting corporations. As Lakshmi Chaudhry pointed out earlier on Firstpost:

In the newsroom, the sins of omission are far more common than those of commission. One common technique is to create a higher burden of “proof” for  the unwelcome story. An environmental reporter for a highly respected daily newspaper once told me, “The problem isn’t the stories that take on the government or politicians. I get more grief when there’s a major corporate player involved. Then my editor will start to give me a hard time: ‘Do we really want to say that? What proof do you really have?…’ And before you know it, the story just dies.”

We don’t need to treat the Reporters Without Borders report as some kind of media emergency and panic. Media in India is flourishing and for every cartoonist who is hauled to the police station, a thousand others bloom. But what we should worry about is the simple fact that a couple of years ago we were 105 and now we are 131 and most of us would be hard-pressed to figure out what really changed. We didn’t have an Arab Spring or tanks in Tahrir Square or a Bahrain-style crackdown on a pro-democracy movement. When the assault on press freedom is dramatic, it’s easier to see it and fight it. When the loss is incremental, it’s harder to spot. But like climate change, it is real. We are seeing the tip of the iceberg. But its iceberg might be melting.