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Without a free press, India risks further sliding into authoritarianism.

Democracies thrive on the premise that those in power mirror the will of the people, showcasing self-governance and representation. A free press is a cornerstone of nation-building, exposing truths and fostering constructive critique. When a nation, proud of its democratic credentials, finds itself languishing at a low press freedom ranking, it raises alarm. India’s 159th position out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index sends a strong signal about the pressing issues of media freedom in a democracy. The journey towards genuine freedom and equality is evidently long and arduous.

India’s alarming position at 159th among 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index places it just below neighboring countries like Sri Lanka (150th), Pakistan (152nd), and Turkey (158th). The ranking not only highlights India’s struggles but also underscores the broader regional challenges to journalistic freedom. The most pressing criticisms against India hint at systemic issues that demand urgent redress if the world’s largest democracy is to truly champion free expression and information.

With a population of 1.4 billion, India boasts a vast media landscape. 197 million people have access to television, and news content dominates half of the 900 privately owned channels in the country. The public broadcaster Doordarshan, airing in 23 languages, commands a substantial audience. Over 140,000 periodicals, including daily newspapers, collectively circulate more than 390 million copies. While print media was traditionally the primary source of news, younger generations are increasingly turning to the Internet and social media for their information.

Since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power in 2014, there has been a notable shift in India’s media dynamics. The emergence of “Godi media” and the acquisition of NDTV by Gautam Adani has cast doubt on the diversity of the Indian press. The Modi government has leveraged colonial-era laws and anti-terrorism provisions to intimidate and retaliate against journalists. The Telecommunication Act of 2023 gives the government sweeping powers to control news, curtail media operations, and suppress dissent. Indian media’s reliance on advertising, heavily regulated by federal and state governments, further complicates the landscape.

A handful of media conglomerates, often with government ties, dominate the sector, creating an uneven playing field. The predominance of upper-caste Hindu men in journalism starkly contrasts with India’s diverse sociocultural tapestry. The profession remains perilous, with three to four journalists losing their lives annually, underscoring the risks faced by those committed to reporting the truth.

In Kashmir, the media faces severe harassment from police and paramilitary forces, casting a shadow over press freedom in the region. The chilling practice of “preventive” detention has left some journalists languishing in prison for years without formal charges. The pervasive atmosphere of fear stifles journalistic integrity and poses a significant threat to democracy. Addressing these challenges is crucial to protecting journalists’ rights, free speech, and accountability.

A free press poses a challenge to the ruling regime, disrupting entrenched hierarchies and truth narratives. Nonetheless, press freedom is indispensable for fostering constructive criticism and driving development, particularly in a nation as populous and diverse as India. Ensuring a culture of open dialogue and accountability is vital for the country’s democratic health.

Abdul Mussawer Safi is an author at various platforms such as Modern Diplomacy, Kashmir Watch, and Eurasia Review. He is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from National Defense University. He has a profound interest in world politics, especially in the regional dynamics of South Asia. His academic strengths are critical and SWOT analysis.