On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, observed on May 3, the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) have expressed shock and anger at increasing attacks on the media in the past year. the journalists’ bodies have demanded that a “comprehensive law be immediately enacted to protect media persons from arbitrary arrests and prosecutions.”
The media bodies led by veteran journalists S K Pande, N. Kondaiah, G.Anjaneyulu, and Sujata Madhok have also demanded a “Media Council for the entire media to replace the toothless Press Council.” The post of Chairperson of the Press Council has been vacant for almost a year and the media bodies alleged that “the government has not cared to widen the scope of the Council to include all news media today.”
The organisations have also asked for a “Media Commission of India” that also looks into “ethical issues broadly in the lines of the First and Second Press Commissions when the emergent media and new monopolies and interests were less conspicuous.” In perhaps a first, the media bodies also looked inwards and stated that there were many ‘journalists’ who brought infamy to the profession by “acting as drumbeaters for the powers that be.” They put on record how “media barons have colluded in this process, hiring pliant ‘journalists’ whose nightly antics on television have destroyed the credibility of the medium.”
Attacks on media
The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) stated put on record the multiple challenges faced by media “from open fascism, administrative and police excesses including jailing of journalists, false cases, raids, internet shutdowns, spyware, increasing moves to ‘regulate’ digital social media, trolling, widespread sexism and abuse, besides job losses and the dismantling of labour laws.” Hate speech and fake news are the order of the day, they stated.
The number of attacks on journalists, on those “who do not toe the line has increased sharply” and Reporters Sans Frontieres’ World Press Freedom Index for 2021 had lowered India’s ranking to 142. “The government continues to imprison journalists under draconian Acts like UAPA. A colonial era Sedition law is still on the statute books and many journalists have been charged with sedition for offenses such as a tweet or Facebook post. During the Covid lockdown media persons braved the pandemic to report from the ground, yet some were arrested for reporting on lapses by public hospitals or corruption in hospital supplies. Recently, journalists were paraded in their underwear in a police station. Others were arrested for exposing an examination scandal and spent three weeks in jail until concerted protests ensured their release on bail,” stated the media bodies.
They also put on record how even as trolling has become a professional hazard, it is often the “minority journalists face some of the worst hate speech. Women journalists are repeatedly targeted with sexist abuse and threats of rape.” The organisations condemned the “inaction on the Sulli Deals episode which led to further targeting of politically active women including leading journalists under the Bulli Deals” and demanded a “swift, deterrent punishment in all such cases.”
India, they said “holds a world record in the number of internet shutdowns” as shown by the digital rights group Access Now’s calculations that the internet was shut down by the authorities “at least 106 times in 2021.”
“Internet shutdowns impede the work of journalists who cannot check the veracity of news and/or send out their stories on time. Meanwhile surveillance of the media is on the rise, with spyware like Pegasus being used for dubious purposes,” they stated, adding that this creates hurdles in the work of a journalist as well.
Job losses in media
No data is available on the number of journalists who have succumbed to Covid, although a few families have received some compensation. Approximately 3,000 journalists lost their jobs in the lockdown during the first wave of Covid 19, stated the NAJ-DUJ, adding that fast track courts to decide labour matters concerning journalists be set up. “The government has virtually demolished the Working Journalists Acts that provided some protection and mandated a periodic wage board for the profession. We demand a permanent wage fixation machinery for the entire media industry and demand that the anti-labour codes affecting the entire working classes besides journalists go lock stock and barrel,” they demanded. [Courtesy: Sabrang India]