Threat to press freedom in India as vice president wants a 'code of conduct'

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India's Vice President Venkaiah Naidu took a shot at the country's news media and pushed for restraint, much like the US President Donald Trump.

Naidu advocated for prescribing a minimum educational qualification for aspiring journalists, according to the Press Information Bureau. "The Fourth Estate had always championed the cause of the underdogs," he said, but then went on to add that,"the same cannot be said of the noble profession any longer as commercial and other considerations were taking precedence over everything else."

Naidu warned the country's press against becoming become captive receivers of biased and partisan information. "One would have to read a minimum of four to five major newspapers to get a complete sense of the current developments. Same is the case with the news channels," he said.

It is true that there is a rise in sensationalism (pdf) and polarisation in Indian media. However, it is unlikely that the establishment would be annoyed by outfits that take the same line as the government on most contentious issues. Therefore, the curbs, if any, will only affect those who contest the state's narrative.

The comments from Naidu have come two days after the government was cornered by a scoop, which said that the unemployment in the country was at its worst in 45 years based on an undisclosed survey submitted to the government by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).

The story was covered by every major media outlet-- both Indian and foreign-- and all of them attributed it to the daily, Business Standard, which reported it first. It was a body blow for the government that has tried to dismiss allegations of a jobless growth in the world's sixth largest economy.

This is not the first time that governments in India have advocated curbs on press freedom. Just last year, a similar attempt by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry had to be withdrawn after a severe backlash from the industry.

In April 2018, the I&B Ministry issued a circular stating that the Press Council of India and News Broadcasters Association, the two regulatory bodies for print and television media respectively, will determine whether a news story is fake or not. However, the notice was withdrawn by the government after a reported intervention by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). The minister then, Smriti Irani, has since been moved to another department.

The other side of the story

India already ranks an abysmal 138 out of 180 countries in the world, just one notch above Pakistan, for press freedom. India slipped two places on the world ranking in 2018 due to a variety of reasons.

While the country still has a rich variety of news media, the challenges for journalists have been on the rise.

Particularly, in strife-torn regions. "Kashmiri journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government's tacit consent," said the World Press Freedom Index Report 2018 by Reporters Without Borders. Foreign reporters are barred from the region and the Internet is often disconnected during tense times.

There has also been a rise in physical attacks. "At least three of the journalists murdered in 2017 were targeted in connection with their work. They included the newspaper editor Gauri Lankesh, who had been the target of a hate campaign on social networks. Three other journalists were killed for their professional activity in March 2018," the report said.

Parties of all political hues have had a bone to pick with one media outlet or another, both at the central and the state levels. The politicians have been quick to file defamation suits against reporters, while criticising rivals for doing the same.

The plight of journalists on social media is a story in itself. Journalists are repeatedly abused, threatened with murder or rape by online trolls backed by political parties. Even the prime minister has been blamed for his tacit support to many online bullies.

The comments from Naidu today is likely to revive the debate on press freedom in India.

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