The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has given the nod to set up a panel of officials from the ministries of Information and Broadcasting, External Affairs, Niti Aayog and a bunch of journalists approved by the government, who will look into potential ways of improving India’s ranking at the World Press Freedom Index. The panel appointed by the Centre will have the director-general of the Press Information Bureau, officials from the Registrar of newspapers of India, Bureau of outreach and communication, and from the press facilitation unit, apart from the secretary of the Press Council of India and Niti Aayog.
This comes at a time when Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a non-profit organisation that document attacks on journalists around the world, had recently ranked India 142 out of 180 countries in their 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Government sources, however, denied the RSF report as a reason and said that the decision to set up the panel, the Index Monitoring Cell, was taken around a month ago, even before the latest rankings were released on 22 April, The Print reported.
The Index Monitoring Cell (IMC) will put in a mechanism for states to come up with rankings of their own on press freedom. States have been asked to appoint Nodal officers who will regularly update on state of journalists and complaints by media houses, questionnaires are also being prepared to understand challenges that journalists face. The group will also engage with international agencies on the process followed to rank countries. A senior official said field publicity and Press Information Bureau officials in States have already been asked to send in names of journalists, both stringers and those accredited by State governments, in every district, to the centre, an Economic Times report said.
The IMC will “build an understanding of the press freedom index among relevant stakeholders within and outside the ministry for regular communication, and formulate an action plan,” the order said. “The panel will also co-ordinate with data publishing agencies, set up reporting mechanism to provide updated data to stakeholders, facilitate formal and informal engagement with them, establish suitable platforms for improved visibility and communication of steps taken by the government,” it said.
Though the RSF report acknowledged there were no journalists killed in 2019 in India, it also pointed out to reasons for the decline in rankings, referring to the situation in Kashmir as one of the reasons, the report said, “after rescinding the state’s autonomy, the federal government shut down fixed line and mobile Internet connections completely for several months, making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison.”
The Indian government however has slammed any accusations of press freedom violations in the country. The Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, tweeted out on ‘World Press Freedom Day’, “We will expose, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about “Freedom of Press” in India,” he said.