FOCUS
Ensuring press freedom: still miles to go
Impunity for the killers of journalists, criminal defamation,
soft-censorship, policing the digital debate, and other legal weapons
continue aiming at muzzling independent media


Again on May 03, thousands of newspapers across the world commemorated World Press Freedom Day, with a message that press freedom is more important than ever as the practice of free and independent journalism remains under threat worldwide. The Hindu in India and Zero Hora in Brazil ran penetrating editorials on the theme of press freedom, while Canada's Globe and Mail produced a wide-ranging package of comment and analysis on the issues that threaten a free press worldwide. La Stampa in Italy featured an eight-page insert and online multimedia package highlighting the testimonies of inspiring journalists who work on the front-line when it comes to defending press freedom around the world. Meanwhile, WAN-IFRA's Global Press Freedom Report June 2012 - May 2013 takes a twelve-month snapshot of the major issues like impunity for the killers of journalists, Criminal defamation, soft-censorship, policing the digital debate, etc, affecting press freedom and freedom of expression worldwide. Ajeet Singh briefs on press freedom worldwide, with special focus on India's perspective.


Despite lot of efforts through various forums globally, the safety of journalists continues to be of major concern especially in those areas of the world where conflict makes reporting the news dangerous, often deadly. Whether at the hand of extremists, organised criminal gangs or official security forces, journalists increasingly find themselves in the firing line. Where the media is targeted, impunity for the killers of journalists continues to prolong the agony for the victims' families and cast a chilling shadow over the profession. Global efforts to reverse such trends like the UN Plan of Action on the 'Safety of Journalists' and the 'Issue of Impunity' have gained traction in the last twelve months. Bringing together governments, the UN system, NGOs and industry in one concerted effort to combat crimes against journalists, it remains to be seen how effectively the Plan can be implemented in the parts of the world most affected by violence, says WAN-IFRA's Global Press Freedom Report June 2012 - May 2013.

Criminal defamation and other legal weapons aimed at muzzling independent media persist, with cases in Russia, Italy, Libya and Cameroon highlighting the global appeal of such pernicious legislation for those in power to stifle criticism and debate. The space for such freedoms within newly formulated constitutions is yet to be defined, and as debate continues in Egypt and Tunisia the media remains unprotected and faces increasing attacks in the post-revolution reconstruction. Proposals for tighter press regulation in the United Kingdom and a Secrecy Bill in South Africa contrast with the positive steps towards greater legislative freedom for the press in Myanmar. Nevertheless, media watchdog organisations are closely monitoring the formulation of legal texts that will define how freedom of expression is framed in emerging societies and established democracies alike. Soft-censorship has become another weapon of choice for governments looking to exert financial pressures on the independent press as a means of bending it to their will. Government interference in advertising distribution forms part of a larger worldwide pattern of economic sanction against independent journalism.

Policing the digital debate has led to increased online censorship and imprisonment of netizens in countries around the globe. Bahrain has targeted Twitter users while Vietnam continues to jail bloggers in its on-going suppression of political debate. China remains key to how online censorship will develop, with its Great Firewall still policing hundreds of millions of users and restricting the free-flow of information, despite some notable exceptions. Perhaps most worrying is the influence the Chinese model of Internet censorship is having over countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Iran when it comes to installing surveillance technologies and emulating government-controlled Internet policing.

Spotlighting India....

However, the press in India enjoyed much more freedom than that in many other countries across the world. But still more effective steps need to be taken for better functioning of media houses as they deserve to strengthen the democratic values through uninfluenced flow of information. In this regards, there are several issues of concern that must be taken into consideration significantly. In the 2013 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders, India has dropped to its lowest rank (got 140th rank, after a fall of 9 places) since 2002 due to increasing impunity for violence against journalists and because Internet censorship continues to grow.

As per WAN-IFRA's Global Press Freedom Report, in India press covering clashes and riots were attacked several times in the past year. In August, insurgent group Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup threw a grenade into the home of a newspaper editor after his title refused to publish a statement from the group. In the same month, a group of photojournalists was seriously injured during a violent demonstration. Media professionals covering strikes and clashes in September were also harmed. Police reportedly carried out attacks on journalists in September and December. A parcel bomb killed freelance journalist Chaitali Santra on September 26. Santra's mother told a local newspaper that the crime reporter had made several enemies and regularly received threatening calls. All Kashmiri news outlets were censored on February 09 after the execution of a local militant. An unofficial government directive shut down the media after the execution revived political tension in the area. On August 17, the government conducted a technology shutdown after SMS messages warning people in several large towns of retaliation for sectarian violence caused a mass exodus. The government banned selected SMS messages and blocked a hoard of websites after people from Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai fled to parts of northern India. Until March 22, a gag order had been in place over a controversial rape trial in Delhi, prohibiting journalists from receiving reliable and open information about the case.

Reasonable restrictions Vs unreasonable restrictions! Recently at an awards function of the Press Club Mumbai, the union minister for Information & Broadcasting Manish Tewari conveyed that content regulation in the media space is not going to come out of political executive, but will come out of the judicial process. So, there is a need to make self regulation more inclusive and robust to keep out judicial intervention. The minister Tewari said, "With exponential growth in the media space, a paradigm shift has taken place, wherein regulations have to keep pace with changing technologies and have to be universal." He said the social media has reshaped the media environment today and in effect, there are over eight crore broadcasters in the form of micro-bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users. The minister went on to mention the Paradox of Short Fuse, which pits proliferating instruments of dissemination against growing intolerance. Such a situation creates conflict between Article 19 of the Constitution of India guaranteeing the freedom of speech and reasonable restrictions to be imposed on it. Elaborating further, he said there was a need for constant introspection so that the self regulation process could be taken forward.

While as per the observations of veteran journalist and the former editor-in-chief of The Hindu N Ram, the reasonable restrictions have often been becoming 'unreasonable restrictions', with jurisdiction of criminal contempt posing a serious challenge to fearless journalism. Moderating an inward looking debate on the profession of journalism, 'Keeping Media Free & Fair', Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami emphasised that media had the right to defend its turf from frequent judicial interventions.

Respecting constrictive criticism! On the occasion of launching the Ahmedabad edition of The Hindu Business Line on May 24, 2013, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, while underlining the strength of social media saying that even the mainstream media has to follow the events that are noticed by social media, recalled the face of the media in the wake of the Emergency and asked whether the mindset of June 25-26, 1975 existed today or not. He stated that while in the last many years he has not blocked anyone on a medium such as Twitter or his Blog but those in power have time and again blocked people who criticize them. He affirmed, "They are not willing to listen to any voice against them or any criticism. If there is no criticism, how can democracy be strengthened?" Modi also pointed out to a difference between criticism and allegations.

Ultimately, to ensuring press freedom in real sense, still there are miles to go, with genuine political will power for change. Over the decades, the world has witnessed the importance of press freedom, as life line of democratisation. Undergoing democratic reforms, Myanmar is the recent example, where the government, perhaps, has understood the significance of freedom of press, allowing privately run daily newspapers to be printed for the first time in close to fifty years. In its exclusive May 3 editorial, highlighting the necessity of a media that holds power to account through the strength and determination of courageous journalists, WAN-IFRA has rightly conveyed, "Wherever you live, whatever you do, pause for a moment and reflect on what kind of a society would be in front of you, were it not for the presence of an inquisitive media. Who makes decisions on your behalf, and just how transparent is the process? This, ultimately, is why we defend journalists and a free press worldwide."

Changing air for the Myanmar media...

After months of broken promises, the country's censorship office was finally closed in September 2012, while pre-publication censorship has been abolished and on April 01, 2013, daily newspapers were printed for the first time in about 50 years. However, information from media advocacy groups and journalists reveals sharp barriers to the nation's supposed media liberation.

"We have granted a lot of freedom to the media, unlike in the old days," said president Thein Sein during a March 2013 interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma, emphasising that the media plays an important role in the country's development and in democratic reforms, and it needs to point out the government's weak points."

"Obviously, it's been a positive change compared to where we were, say, two years ago, but the reforms (and the research has only underscored this conclusion) are so far incomplete," said CPJ's Southeast Asia Representative, Shawn Crispin, who recently returned from a press freedom research mission to Myanmar.

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