India slips below Afghanistan to 161st on World Press Freedom Index

India has slipped 11 places on the annual World Press Freedom Index published by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which said the last 12 months had seen the “end of [media] pluralism” in the country.

The annual index, published on Wednesday to mark the UN’s World Press Freedom Day, ranked India in 161st place out of 180 countries, below Pakistan (150) and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (152).

RSF’s summary of the report highlighted India along with some other countries which saw notable declines in press freedom. “The situation has gone from ‘problematic’ to ‘very bad’ in three other countries: Tajikistan (down 1 at 153rd), India (down 11 at 161st) and Turkey (down 16 at 165th),” it read.

“In India, media takeovers by oligarchs close to Prime Minister Modi have jeopardised pluralism.”

The RSF said in its section on India that the world’s largest democracy has suffered a crisis in press freedom under Narendra Modi, who has led the country since 2014 and is seeking re-election for a third consecutive term next year.

“The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy’, ruled since 2014 by prime minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right,” the report said.

The report highlighted a change in Indi’a press freedom in the mid-2010’s when Mr Modi first came to power. India ranked 140th in the index for 2013.

“The prime example is undoubtedly the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s, who owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians. Similarly, the takeover of the NDTV channel at the end of 2022 by tycoon Gautam Adani, who is also very close to Narendra Modi, signalled the end of pluralism in the mainstream media.”

In recent years, the Indian authorities have been accused of cracking down on independent media voices and organisations seen to be critical of the government.

The federal tax authorities have conducted raids on domestic news organisations like The Wire and Newsclick as well as non-profit bodies like Oxfam India and the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Earlier this year, India’s tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai in exercises described as “surveys” to probe the British broadcaster’s financial operations. It came shortly after the BBC published a two-part documentary for its UK audiences that was seen as being critical of Mr Modi.

The national vice president of the ruling BJP, Baijayant Panda, said that the new rankings were a "ludicrously biased take on India".

"A day after the World Press Freedom Index released its latest report, even hardened Modi baiters are embarrassed by its ludicrously biased take on India.

“Really? Lower than Libya & Afghanistan?"

The Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Press Club of India and the Press Association released a joint statement expressing concern at the direction of press freedom in the country.

“The indices of press freedom have worsened in several countries, including India, according to the latest RSF report,” the joint statement was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.

“For developing democracies in the Global South where deep pockets of inequities exist, the media’s role cannot be understated.

“Likewise the constraints on press freedom due to hostile working conditions like contractorisation have to also be challenged. Insecure working conditions can never contribute to a free press,” it added.

Opposition parties criticised the Modi government and what they called the “Godi Media” (a play on Modi’s name and the Hindi word for lapdogs, referring to pro-government media outlets) for India’s slide on the index.

The RSF report highlighted what it said was the rise of “media outlets such as Times Now and Republic TV that mix populism and pro-BJP propaganda”.

“The old Indian model of a pluralist press is therefore being seriously challenged by a combination of harassment and influence,” it said.

“A proud moment for Godi Media,” wrote opposition Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor wrote: “Time for all of us to hang our heads in shame: India slips in World Press Freedom Index, ranks 161 out of 180 countries.”

Mahua Moitra MP from the Trinamool Congress wrote: “Who needs a free press anyway when you can have GodiMedia.”

The Indian government has repeatedly criticised RSF’s index in recent years, accusing the watchdog of employing a “non-transparent” methodology. Supporters of the government questioned how a democratic country like India could be placed lower than Taliban-ruled Afghanistan this year.

Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at RSF, told the news website Newslaundry that form of governance is not the only factor in determining a country’s positioning. “The RSF ranking does not judge the political system but the situation in 180 countries and/or territories,” he said.

“It is based on an analysis of five indicators... it therefore includes the political context but is not restricted to it.”

The index evaluates five “contextual indicators” on which countries are scored, from 0 (worst) to 100 (best).

These are political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and safety – with a total of 117 questions and sub-questions.

Until 2021, RSF would rate countries under seven categories.

Countries are then divided into five categories: good situation (85-100 points), satisfactory situation (75-85), problematic situation (65-75); difficult situation (45-65) and very serious situation (below 45). India’s total score places it in the last category.

Last year India’s lowly ranking in the index was raised in parliament by the opposition, to which information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur said: “The government does not subscribe to its (RSF) views and country rankings and does not agree to the conclusions drawn by this organisation for various reasons including very low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and non-transparent.”

This year’s index shows Norway ranked first for the seventh year running, while three Asian countries occupied the last three places – Vietnam, China and North Korea.