India’s ranking in the press freedom has fallen to 150thposition out of 180 countries assessed by a self-claimed global media watchdog, “Reporting Without Borders.” Echoing that report of 2022 released this week, three Indian journalists’ bodies stated that attacks on press freedom have seen “an exponential rise” during the year. What is significant of this global index, although its basics are little known, is its assessment of “a two-fold increase in “polarisation” amplified by “information chaos”, that is, media polarisation fuelling divisions within countries, as well as polarisation between countries at the international level”. It was envisioning such a potential and possibility that United Nations had mandated UNESCO 80 years ago to promote the idea of “press freedom”. The Republic of India at the very outset, 70 years ago, went further and took even preventive or proactive initiatives.
Thirty years ago in 1993, The UN General Assembly proclaimed that May 4 would be a World Press Freedom Day. On that basis since then UNESCO has been holding seminars and discourses on that day world over, including in India. The UN and UNESCO expect that such a celebration would serve as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitments to press freedom and also help reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom. In May 2022 too the UNESCO held programme very faithfully.
The theme this year was “journalism under digital siege”. The topic, of course, is most appropriate to deliberate in view of recent proliferation of surveillance technologies all over and their use both by the state and non-state players and the kind of furore it has lead involving not only privacy issues but also freedom of information, public media and stakes of journalists in that context. By such reminders once a year UNESCO expects to promote “an ethically strong free media culture”. That being an idea and an option continuing pursuit is of course desired.
As before, this year too, despite complexity of the theme, the participants on 4 May were mostly the Unions and Federation of journalists. Neither technologists nor the policy people or the entrepreneurs making significant difference in the context, were involved. It was described as a ceremony and a discourse on pros and cons? It was neither. For, a ceremony implies achievements. Pros and cons, on the other, imply deliberating the issues and sensitising the stake holders towards consolidating the idea of freedom of press. Codes of conduct availed in that process becomes relevant when appraisals are periodical, transparent and with involvement of stake holders. Such reviews in isolation of larger context year after year do not take far as we see now. If more than 200 deaths and 500 threats in a decade in the context of RTI Act which included journalists, what an annual report of unions on safety of journalists is going to. The larger public is not even sensitised about the circumstances.
Certain fundamentals inherent in this very notion of “press freedom” do not seem to figure in these annual exercises. But those assumptions continue to be the basis. First one is that press is a public service enjoying stature of “fourth estate” (the other three being the judiciary, legislature and executive). A second one is assumption that press has constitutional guarantees directly or otherwise. A third one is that working journalists engaged in compiling news content of press have certain privileges and obligations. A fourth one, age old one, is that press freedom is “integral to the functioning of a vibrant democracy”. These four are only an example. The point is that over these years these notions were neither validated nor reiterated or clarified or amply promoted. They continue to be assumptions and subject to interpretations time to time and even regime to regime.
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Certain trends over the years in journalism, media and governance are not conducive for thriving freedom of press and the associated notions. Monopoly and cross media ownership with in media is one such trend. Centralisation in politics and control and command concerns in governments are other examples. These trends have deepened in the recent years with threatening implications to the very idea of freedom of press. Media refusing and resisting to come under Right to Information (RTI) is another example. Is it possible to talk of virtues of press freedom and democracy or rights and responsibilities of journalists when the trend is contrary?
Decline in standing of journalism
Also despite gradual decline in the standing of journalists there was no correctives ever initiated. Even journalists themselves appear to have given up their pursuit of earlier years. For example, the significance of Wage Board initiated first in 1955 with statuary standing as part of an Act of the Parliament, was never understood of its larger context. It was initiated not merely to ensure wages to working journalists and increments, but more important, in recognition of the fact that working journalists should not be under mercy of owners or managements and that journalists should be recognised as stake holders and would be able to play their role only when they are guaranteed of their jobs.(That was why most media establishments had gone for contract employment of even their senior journalists). Despite six Wage Boards since 1956, the last one being 2010, they made no difference suffering from series of petitions in the Supreme Court against questioning the very constitutional validity. And yet UNESCO pursued the idea of freedom of press! The very pertinent idea of Wage Board for working journalists was allowed slow poisoning.
Despite it is known that training of journalists, journalism education, media literacy and media research are critical to uphold press freedom, there is hardly any proactive or specific promotional initiative at any level. The siege that press has been subjected to earlier or now cannot be addressed without training, education and monitoring and research support. Whatever is there is mere symbolic, ad hoc, or in isolation? Monitoring of temporal trends is what is being showcased at the cost of basics and fundamentals. Without independent time series research, there cannot be serious pursuit of pros and cons of “press freedom” (including social media).
With nearly 200 national commissions and over 50 regional field offices, the 75-year-old UNESCO could set impressive track as it in the earlier decades with for example, International Literacy Day and Education for all campaign decades ago. It could have similar initiatives with regards to press, media, journalists and impressive data bases to do with media of all origins and platforms. And it could have taken proactive initiatives in the case of new digital technologies. Media literacy is most appropriate for UNESCO to take on more seriously and systematically so that the larger public becomes sensitive to the kind of threats public communication practices are suffering from.
Journalists under siege not for the first time
Digital technologies, more particularly artificial intelligence tools, surveillance technologies and data bases are intervening and changing the paradigm in so many ways for journalism and journalists, more specifically. This is not first time that journalists are under siege. This siege could as well be an opportunity for journalists to gear up and consolidate. I recall fifty years ago when I was presenting the data from the first National Readership Survey, that was the reaction. But it was a turning point and a new window. That was how it happened twenty years later when DTH (direct to home) television appeared on the scene with CMS visualisation of its scope that then became the next big game changer of media scene. So we should now look for opportunities for a new generation of journalists or content producers whatever may be the name for that profession or function.
Twists and turns
During the thirty years since UN Assembly resolved to have May 4 as Press Freedom Day, there were twists and turns of challenges and opportunities. But fundamentals themselves have changed in view of this it is time for the UN to review and reposition the primary role of UNESCO as envisioned for “building peace in the minds of people through education, science and culture.” This 75-year-old mandate itself need to be relooked into and repositioned.
(May 4, World Press Freedom Day)
(Dr N Bhaskara Rao is a longstanding public policy analyst in India with over a dozen books to his credit. Dr Rao is a pioneer in media research).