By Ashok Kumar
May 3, was proclaimed as World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations, “ On this day, I call for end to all crackdowns against journalists—because a free press advances peace and justice for all, said Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General.
The theme for this year’s event was Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies. It is an opportunity to
- celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
- assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
- defend the media from attacks on their independence;
- and pay tributes to journalists who have lost their lives in line of duty.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated his ’unwavering’ support towards the freedom of the press, saying its independence is vital in a democracy. He also said social media has added more vigour to press freedom. In November last year on the golden anniversary of Press Council of India, Mr. Modi had said: The Press is responsible for upholding free speech and Government should not interfere in the working of media.
He, however, said that there must be a limit to this (freedom of press). And, this is becoming more and more evident now with the passage of time and the government firm in the saddle.
Senior or veteran journalists recollect that though “Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reiterated his “unwavering support” to the freedom of press and media stating its independence is vital for democracy. Ironically, facts and practices of his government and his party are contrary to his words. Journalist’s access to information is being restricted as they, unlike before, cannot visit ministries and government department to meet officials without appointment. Many officials have been telling us that their meetings with media persons are not seen very kindly by those controlling power. So, they don’t give appointments which are monitored.
Similarly, access of media persons to top office bearers of the BJP is also controlled. “I reported the BJP from 1988 to 2008 and I could visit the party headquarter at 11, Ashok Road and meet any leader if he was sitting in his office and was relatively free but now under Amit Shah’s regime rather from the time he became the general secretary during Rajnath Singh’s presidency, media access to that part of the office where top leadership sits is not only restricted rather banned, said another senior journalist.”
“The Prime Minister had restricted the media entry into different departments and ministries in Gujarat when he was the chief minister there. Former MPs or legislators were another source of information for media but now the Modi government has also banned rather restricted their access to the government departments and ministries by a simple order that they can enter these places only after taking appointments.”
Another senior correspondent who used to access Press Information Bureau in Shastri Bhawan could do so with much ease but now things are not so simple with more restrictions in place there. “It looks now a fortified palace. I wonder why there is such a big gap in words and action.” Journalists just wonder as if there are “bamboo curtains drawn between journalists and party headquarters. Bamboo curtains are widely referred to inaccessible Communist boundaries.”
Talking about freedom of press, it is ironic that a democratically elected prime minister of a democratic country is yet to publicly address a press conference in the last three years’ of his reign in spite of serious happenings in the country, be it demonitisation, Kashmir trouble and border ceasefire violation.
It will not be out of place to mention that in terms of freedom of press, India has slipped further three notches below to 136 from the last years’ 133rd ranking among the 180 nations in the world, according to Business Standard.