Troll army tells on media rank
New Delhi: Narendra Modi's India has caught up with Donald Trump's United States at least on one count: both have fallen by two notches on the World Press Freedom Index.
Worse for India, it has found mention in a general analysis by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) where a direct allegation is being levelled about "troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pay".
India, the chapter on which is titled "Deadly Threat from Modi's Nationalism", slipped from 136 to 138th rank among 180 countries mapped by the watchdog.
The US - run by Trump who has borrowed Josef Stalin's phrase "enemies of the people" to describe reporters - has also stumbled two places to the 45th position.
This is the second consecutive year when India has fallen in the global rankings: 133 in RSF's 2016 index, 136 in 2017 and 138 now.
RSF lays the blame squarely at the doorstep of the Prime Minister although Modi does not enjoy absolute monopoly on the subject. The report has been made public in a week when several journalists have been assaulted in Bengal, ruled by the Mamata Banerjee government, while covering the run-up to the panchayat polls.
"In India (down two at 138th), hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pay," RSF said in its general analysis of the index. This is a change from last year when India did not find mention in the general analysis of the rankings.
Efforts by this newspaper for comments from the Union government's official spokesperson did not elicit any response.
The India chapter notes with concern the growing self-censorship in the mainstream media. "With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals."
The number of journalists killed in 2017 equals those killed in the Philippines: four. The India chapter records prosecutions being used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which "sedition" is punishable by life imprisonment.
"No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship. Coverage of regions that the authorities regard as sensitive, such as Kashmir, continues to be very difficult. Foreign reporters are barred from the region and the Internet is often disconnected there. When not detained, Kashmiri journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government's tacit consent," the report said of India's track record in 2017.
By and large, what is happening in India fits the global pattern where there is a growing animosity towards journalists. "Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies."