Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel Prize recipient in Economic Sciences said, “Free speech and a free press not only make abuses of governmental powers less likely; they also enhance the likelihood that people’s basic social needs will be met. Secrecy reduces the information available to the citizenry, hobbling people’s ability to participate meaningfully. Essentially, meaningful participation in democratic processes requires informed participants”.
Profound and meaningful words indeed- which ring more than true today, particularly in India! Freedom of Speech and Expression has reached abysmal depths its nadir. Those who take a stand: write and speak against the Government and the ruling party are hauled up, false cases are foisted on them, they are attacked and even killed like Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and others in recent years. Human rights defenders and anyone who expresses dissent are systematically and brutally targeted in India today! Most of the media (print and electronic) are ‘godified’: they toe the line of their political masters, they are bought up (paid media), corporatized and co-opted. It is not a state secret, very visible; if they do not do so, they have to pay the price which is heavy indeed!
It is not surprising that last year the World Press Freedom Index 2022 ranked India 150 out of 180 countries in the world. The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will release its World Press Freedom Index 2023 on 3 May in the presence of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken RSF’s World Press Freedom Index has become an important global tool to measure press freedom, scoring and ranking 180 countries and territories. Each year’s Index prompts reactions from officials around the world, including the expected reactions from India! Given the state of Freedom of Speech and Expression in the country today, it is doubtful whether India has any chances of improving on its pathetic 150 ranking of the previous year.
World Press Freedom Day on 3 May is an annual commemoration adopted by the United Nations in 1993. This year is the 30th anniversary since the UN General Assembly’s decision proclaiming an international day for press freedom. The theme this year is significant: Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights. It powerfully signifies the enabling element of freedom of expression to enjoy and protect all other human rights. Something which India desperately needs and yearns for!
As a backgrounder for the day the UN has provided a path-breaking concept note. The opening para sets the tone for the entire day and of the appropriateness and urgency of the theme. “This proclamation marked the beginning of substantial progress towards enabling a free press and freedom of expression around the world –with the proliferation of independent media in many countries and the rise of digital technologies enabling the free flow of information online. Three decades have passed, with advancements in the respect for human rights and in related international frameworks. However, media freedom, safety of journalists and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack, which impacts the realization of other human rights.
The international community faces multiple crises; conflicts and violence, persistent socio-economic inequalities driving migration, environmental crises and challenges to the health and well-being of people all around the world, while disinformation and misinformation online and offline proliferate with serious impact on the institutions underpinning democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Polarised political and societal discourse; erosion of trust; impositions of states of emergency and internet shutdowns; crackdown on critical voices and independent media; news desertification due to the collapse of traditional media business models; and tackling hate speech and online harms that disregard international standards, pose new threats to freedom of expression, and the fundamental role of human rights. It is exactly to counter these critical situations and threats, that press freedom, safety of journalists and access to information take centre stage.”
The concept note is an authentic reflection of the reality that has gripped India since 2014. The right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a prerequisite and a driver to the enjoyment of all other human rights. Article 19 of the Constitution of India guarantees to every citizen freedom of speech and expression. In the recent past the regime has systematically targeted and even throttled (sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways) all those who have dared oppose them or critiqued their policies and falsehoods. On the other hand, their ‘bhakts’, crony capitalist friends and those who accept the ideology of fascists, have no qualms of conscience spewing venomous hate speeches, denigrating and demonizing minorities and inciting people to violence. They do so with impunity, with the law-and-order mechanism as accomplices in these crimes, knowing fully well that they are cloaked with immunity! Absolutely nothing, they are cock sure, will happen to them!
Human rights of the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the exploited, the minorities and the other marginalised are not only denied, trampled upon but are blatantly violated. For example, ‘The Kashmir Files’ and now the ‘The Kerala Story’, reek with lies, denigration and perversion that would make any thinking Indian who cherishes freedom of speech and expression to hang one’s head down in shame! Ironically, the two-part BBC documentary on ‘The Modi Question’ with incontrovertible facts and authentic visuals is banned from screening/ viewing in India, because it reveals the whole truth and urges the viewer towards a more just and humane society!
The note reiterates, that this year’s special thirtieth anniversary celebration of World Press Freedom Day is therefore a call to recentre press freedom, as well as independent, pluralistic, inclusive and diverse media, as the necessary key to the enjoyment of all other human rights. This anniversary coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Conference and its Declaration and Programme of Action on Human Rights, which established important institutions safeguarding human rights, and with the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this occasion, the global community has debated and set the agenda for both the development
of human rights and how to protect them in an everchanging world, and World Press Freedom Day served as an opportunity to put a strong focus on freedom of expression within the overall human rights agenda.
The question is: will India as a nation and as many citizens of the country as possible, have the audacity to dare by shaping a future of rights wherein the freedom of expression becomes a driver for all other human rights?
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human right, reconciliation & peace activist/writer.
Contact: [email protected] )