New Delhi: A panel set up by the Narendra Modi government last year to improve India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index has recommended drafting a communication strategy to highlight the positive aspects and publicise reforms to enhance press freedom in the country.
The panel has also said the government must engage with international media ranking agencies.
It added that the methodology adopted by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) to measure press freedom lacks transparency, and also identified a “Western bias” and “selection of parameters” as key concerns with the RSF’s index.
The 15-member Index Monitoring Cell — chaired by the principal director general of the Press Information Bureau — has made the recommendations in a report circulated among members at the end of December for their comments. While the email sent to the members of the panel mentions it is a draft report, the cover page of the report does not say so. ThePrint has accessed a copy of the report.
ThePrint reached the I&B ministry through email seeking clarification on the exact status of the report, but the ministry declined to comment.
The panel recommended that the government should pursue decriminalising the offence of defamation in the Indian Penal Code, and carry out a review of various archaic and colonial laws impacting press freedom in India.
It also suggested that legal amendments be made so as to make the consent of the Press Council of India mandatory for filing an FIR against a journalist for her/his publication of a news article, cartoon, opinion or photograph. It said the PCI should convey its decision to the authority within two weeks.
The report also called for a time-bound investigation and filing of charge sheets by police authorities to be made mandatory in matters related to journalistic expression.
The panel also recommended that the I&B ministry should draft a three-pronged strategy in connection with the Press Freedom Index. This includes engagement with industry representatives and media associations, a communication plan at the national and global level for publicising the various “positive aspects” related to the constitutional and legal provisions related to press freedom in India, and publicising reform actions taken towards enhancing press freedom in India.
It added that the government should establish regular engagement with international media ranking agencies to further understand the various aspects related to methodology of the Press Freedom Index, “present the correct factual position of the status of press freedom in India and convey, to the organisation, the unique socio-cultural complexities of India and the national security imperative in light of internal and external threats”.
The panel also reiterated an old demand of the PCI — to form a media council to cover television and digital media along with the print media.
It proposed a few measures for the financial security of journalists, such as a draft ‘Journalists Welfare Fund Act’ and enacting a single legislation/scheme for the welfare of journalists, as well as providing those working in life-threatening situations with bullet-proof identifiable jackets, helmets, and insurance schemes.
India’s press freedom under spotlight
As first reported by ThePrint last year, the Index Monitoring Cell was set up by the government to look at ways to improve India’s press freedom ranking, which has been slipping in the last few years. This was part of the Modi government’s efforts to improve the country’s rankings on various global indicators across sectors.
The Paris-based RSF has ranked India 142nd among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index 2020.
The panel held four meetings online, even as several sub-groups were created to work on the issues raised during the discussions.
In September 2020, India’s Ambassador to France Jawed Ashraf met RSF secretary general Christophe Deloir to discuss press freedom.
Earlier this month, US-based Freedom House also downgraded India’s ranking on its freedom index and classified it as a ‘partly free’ country, to which the Government of India responded by saying the report is “misleading, incorrect and misplaced”.
The report by the Index Monitoring Cell has a dissenting note submitted by veteran journalist P. Sainath, a member of the panel, comprising a series of critical observations. In his note, Sainath has said that the report falls far short of an important mandate of the panel — to review and discuss ways to improve media freedom in India.
It is not clear whether the government has accepted this as the final report. Sources in the government said there has been no progress on it in the last two months, and it could not be ascertained if it was a draft that would be revised to incorporate the comments from the members, including Sainath.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)