India’s political parties urged to adopt 10-point press freedom programme ahead of elections

In response to the sharp decline in press freedom in India, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on political parties fielding candidates in the general elections beginning April 19 to commit to ten concrete measures that aim to defend the right to reliable news and information and protect journalists.

The persecution of journalists and media has intensified dramatically since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014 and India is now ranked as low as 161st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

At least 28 journalists have been killed since 2014 and nine are currently imprisoned. Terrorism laws are being misused to persecute media personnel. The police and tax agencies are constantly deployed to silence independent media. Journalists are routinely subjected to the scourge of disinformation campaigns, while access to India is getting increasingly restricted for foreign journalists.

In order to put the right to information on the agenda at these general elections, RSF has identified ten key measures for candidates to adopt as a matter of urgency.

“It is unacceptable that the country portrayed as the world’s biggest democracy now lacks so many of the safeguards needed to sustain a free and diverse press. It is unacceptable that Indian journalists and foreign reporters are subjected to so much obstruction in their day-to-day work. There is an urgent need for political parties to affirm their commitment to safeguarding the public’s right to reliable, diverse and independent information, and to adopting measures to end the continuous erosion of press freedom seen in India during the past decade. We offer them ten key measures to include in their programmes.

Célia Mercier
Head of RSF’s South Asia Desk

RSF asks India’s political parties to commit to press freedom by adopting the following ten key recommendations :

1) Immediately free the nine arbitrarily detained journalists, including five from the northern Jammu and Kashmir region

2) Overhaul the terrorism laws so that they can no longer be used to persecute journalists

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Amendment Act 2019 (UAPA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA) are often used against journalists. 

3) End the censorship and surveillance of journalists

New legislation allows, or will allow, the censorship of publications, surveillance of journalists and violation of the confidentiality of their sources. This is the case with the Telecom Bill, 2023, the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, the Information Technology Amendment Rules, 2023 and the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023. This legislation must be amended so that it cannot be used to obstruct journalists’ work.

4) Establish an independent commission of enquiry into cases of spying on journalists 

At least 15 Indian journalists have been targeted by the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware since 2021 with complete impunity. 

5) Protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources

The seizure of journalistic equipment must be limited to strictly defined exceptional circumstances and subject to the control of an independent judicial authority. This is essential in order to safeguard the confidentiality of journalists' sources, which are currently not protected because journalists’ equipment can be seized without restriction.

6) Safeguard pluralism by regulating media concentration

A small number of private-sector companies and conglomerates currently own India’s leading media outlets. Legislation must be introduced to end these monopolies and restrict cross-ownership in order to safeguard pluralism.

7) Adopt mechanisms for protecting journalists

A mechanism must be established for guaranteeing the physical and digital safety of journalists, especially those who say they are being threatened, as was the case with Nikhil Wagle, a freelance journalist who was recently attacked in the western state of Maharashtra, and Nesaprabhu, a News7 reporter who was attacked by a gang armed with knives and machetes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in January. Measures must also be taken to combat the online harassment of  journalists and media, which is now widespread.

8) Put a stop to arbitrary Internet shutdowns 

India leads the world in arbitrary cuts to Internet access. In 2023, the authorities shut down the Internet for a total of 5,000 hours in the northeastern state of Manipur alone. These shutdowns, which violate international law, obstruct journalists’ work and encourage the spread of fake news and disinformation, especially during elections.

9) End the restrictions on access to certain parts of the country

In February, reporters were denied access to Haldwani, a locality in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Foreign journalists have to obtain special permits to visit 10 of India’s 36 states and territories. Jammu and Kashmir, in particular, is  almost totally inaccessible for them.

10) Safeguard the foreign media’s right to cover India

India has stepped up reprisals against foreign journalists, above all by giving them shorter visas or denying them work permits. French journalist Vanessa Dougnac is a prime example of the difficulties for foreign reporters trying to cover India. After being based in India covering the country for more than 20 years, she was finally forced to leave in February.

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