03, May 2018 | Mansi Mehta
May 3 is the 25th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 on the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. It is therefore a somber day for Indian journalists given how the Press Freedom is being curtailed in the country, by both, state and non state actors. Here’s a look at the struggle to establish and honour Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression across the world as well as how India is still struggling on this vital front.
The Windhoek Declaration
Since then, May 3, which is the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, has been commemorated as World Press Freedom Day. The Windhoek Declaration was compiled by African journalists in 1991. It was introduced at a UNESCO seminar for ‘Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press’ that was held in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia from April 29 to May 3, 1991.
The Windhoek Declaration prompted similar moves, DW Akademie reported: in 1992, a UNESCO media conference in Kazakhstan adopted the Declaration of Alma Atma, which proclaimed complete support for the Windhoek Declaration. A similar move came with 1994’s Declaration of Santiago, and in 1996, the Declaration of Sana’a highlighted the priority of creating completely independent journalists’ associations, trade unions or syndicates, as well as publishers’ and editors’ associations. In 1997, too, the Declaration of Sofia called on “all parties concerned that the principles enshrined in this (Windhoek) Declaration be applied in practice.”
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Freedom of Expression: An Uphill but Ongoing Battle
Modern-day efforts to uphold the freedom of expression continue unabated, as do attacks on it, but the concept of the freedom of expression is not a modern one. According to a timeline of the history of free speech in the Guardian, in 399BC, Socrates told the jury at his trial, “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.'” Socrates, who was accused of corrupting Athens’ youth and impiety, was convicted and sentenced to death, in spite of the Athenian ideal of free speech. Most famous is the First Amendment of the American Constitution, adopted in 1791, bars the US Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” among other guarantees.
Press freedom, which wouldn’t exist without the freedom of expression, also has a long and varied history. In 1644, the poet John Milton, famously known for penning Paradise Lost, wrote Areopagitica, an impassioned pamphlet against the British government’s move to require pre-publication licensing of all printed materials. In 1766, Sweden’s parliament passed a law that is now regarded as the first ever law backing press freedom; it ended the censorship of all printed publications, other than those on academic and theological issues, and assured public access to government-generated documents.
Attacks on the Press in India
Unfortunately, history, as well as the events of today have demonstrated that even so-called democratic countries and institutions have compromised the ideal of free speech when it is convenient, or when they feel threatened. India, which has long touted itself as the world’s most populous democracy, and where Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees citizen’s the right to freedom of speech and expression, journalists have recently been threatened so much that the country’s ranking dropped two places to 138 in 2018’s World Press Freedom Index, which is compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The watchdog group explains that
“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.”
RSF notes that 2017 saw at least three Indian journalists being murdered in relation to their work, highlighting the death of Gauri Lankesh, a vocal left-wing journalist who was critical of Hindutva forces, and focused on issues that the mainstream media overlooked. In March 2018, three journalists died in chillingly similar incidents after they were run over by vehicles, two in Bihar and one in Madhya Pradesh, both Saffron-ruled states. RSF acknowledges these incidents, which invited concern from the United Nations, and also mentions the move to invoke the Indian Penal Code’s Section 124A against journalists to penalise “sedition” with life in prison. On April 29, Chhattisgarh Police booked senior journalist and activist Kamal Shukla under Section 124A for sharing a cartoon related to the Supreme Court’s observation on the alleged suspicious death of Judge B. H. Loya. The cartoon Shukla shared allegedly contained “derogatory” references about the government and judiciary. Shukla has been critical about extra-judicial killings in Chhattisgarh, and the government’s treatment of Adivasis.
Jammu and Kashmir, an internationally recognised conflict zone, has also been particularly deadly for journalists. In its annual report for 2017, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) alleged that, in 2017, “assaults on local journalists by state forces have seen a steep rise”. The organisation claimed that “at least twenty-one journalists have been killed in Kashmir since the early nineties”. In one instance, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in September 2017 “for his alleged involvement in stone pelting incidents”. A 13,000-page chargesheet filed by the NIA in January named Yousuf among 12 people who were accused of stone-pelting and allegedly funding terrorism, the Indian Express reported, highlighting that the charge-sheet said the media was “equally responsible” for Kashmir’s situation, because they are “not playing their role in peace, prosperity and communal harmony in the Valley.” Yousuf remained in custody until he was granted bail on March 12, more than six months after his arrest.
In early April 2018, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, headed by Smriti Irani, issued an order saying if a journalist is found to be involved in creating or spreading fake news could have their government accreditation suspended, or revoked. The order, a brazen attack on press freedom in the name of stopping ‘fake news’, was widely condemned, forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cancel it. However, the I&B Ministry still proceeded with forming a committee to regulate online content, a move that many have expressed concern over, with more than 100 journalists writing to Irani in opposition of the committee.
The theme for World Press Freedom Day 2018 is ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’, emphasising the need to foster a legal environment for the freedom of the press, particularly to the role of an independent judiciary to safeguard press freedom, and to prosecute crimes against journalists. The theme also considers the media’s role in sustainable development, especially in relation to elections and as a “watchdog fostering transparency, accountability and the rule of law.” In light of this, the attacks on journalists in India, often by the state itself and/or by forces the state protects, are particularly disheartening. No longer can India continue to call itself a vibrant democracy when one of the very hallmarks of democracy is being constantly threatened.
*Feature Image courtesy Getty Images