Only in the recent past, we have seen relentless attacks on NDTV and The Wire – two news agencies who have consistently taken the critical stance on the government. The latest addition comes with the resignation of ABP News’ managing director Milind Khandekar and anchor Punya Prasoon Bajpai. Bajpai was associated with ABP News’ flagship programme Masterstroke in which he had rebutted many of the government’s claim (and propaganda). Before, the resignation many people had reported the black-outs and glitches on the Network during the time Masterstroke aired. According to Tata Sky, Airtel DTH and a report by The Wire, the problem was in fact from the end of the channel it was deliberately done by the channel administrators. In the same report of The Wire, another journalist, Abhisar Sharma was ostensibly asked not to go against Modi and when he nevertheless went against this guideline, was asked to take 14 days to leave. The incident shows the amount of pressure the channel must have had. Other journalists who have spoken against the government such as Ravish Kumar and Rana Ayyub have been openly and repeatedly threatened with life. In Ayyub’s case, even the United Nation expressed concerns and asked the government to provide security to her. At the same time, many media organizations are pandering to the government’s agenda and often broadcast the programmes which are either praiseworthy of the government or those without any real agenda. It isn’t the surprise that India was ranked 138 on The World Press Freedom Index 2018, a deplorable ranking for a nation known as World’s largest Democracy.
We must, however, pay attention to two other phenomena related to press freedom. Firstly that attacks on press freedom in recent times is not limited to India and it must have been in the global context. Secondly, there is a direct relation in attacks on press to the unprecedented growth in the fake news.
With the rise of conservative right around the globe, a decreasing trend of press freedom can be evidently observed. Since the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, thousands of journalists have been jailed without (and in some cases with arbitrary) trials. After the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) won the parliamentary elections in Poland, the government has been using legislative, political, and economic means to get media submissive to its agenda and to limit its freedom. Much the same way as in India, Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczyński has responded to the criticism of his government with the assertion that “most of our media are in German hands”. With the matter of Israeli government’s policies and its actions, even the progressive media, including The New York Times, have refrained from condemnation or have tried to shift blames on Palestinians. Last year, Saudi Arabia and UAE had blocked the Al Jazeera and it continues to do so. When it comes to Pakistan, it was, in fact, the Military establishment which had made tremendous pressures on the press, particularly The Dawn, to censor the News. Particularly intriguing is the case of the United States, a nation which swears on its first amendment which enshrines the freedom of speech in the constitution. Since the media in the US is too powerful to succumb to the pressure by the government; President Donald Trump has not only maintained the safe distance from the “liberal” media but has also verbally attacked and mocked it. In a recent tweet he called on media to be unpatriotic, “When the media-driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome – reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic!”. Two experts from the UN even expressed the apprehension that President Trump’s attacks on the media may trigger violence against journalists. And that it is happening in the world’s most powerful nation is the most alarming reason to be afraid of.
Looking back at the sudden rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, we notice the tremendous power of Print media and radio. After the Second World War, democratic nations actively promoted the progressive media to counter its negative implications. But in the wake of social media on which the information flow unchecked and freely, conservative forces have acquired tremendous power. The information which is mostly inaccurate tends to mostly favour the illiberal ideas in a way that a person doesn’t have any hard time proving them. According to a recently concluded study, fake news and false rumours reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories. As the fear of minority or aliens is intrinsic to the psychology of humans, people automatically incline towards the information- which fuels their biases- that might principally be untrue. The immensity of fake news can be fathomed by the spate of lynchings across the nation and how it has chiefly helped the conservative right (read government) in consolidating their voters’ support. This might be the reason that many people in the powerful positions support the peddlers of the fake news by either following them on the social media or by vocally supporting them. Social media helps the unrestricted flow of the information like no other form of media. It is the power of social media that emboldens the Conservative Right enough to freely attack the mainstream media.
At the World Economic Forum summit in Davos this year, the fake news was rightly treated as an urgent matter of global human rights. Lately, Facebook and Twitter have deleted millions of fake accounts, and have pledged to step up the fight against the fake news. Facebook, which also owns Whats App – a great source of misinformation, is planning to put in new strategies to counter fake news in association with Google. If the plans work out, mainstream “Liberal” media around the world, particularly under the conservative governments, should expect the increased attacks. And in case mainstream media has to go long way, it must stand with the weakest among them.