The Press Freedom Index needs 
objectivity if it is to remain relevant

The Press Freedom Index needs objectivity if it is to remain relevant

India’s deterioration on a multiplicity of parameters over the past decade is a reality that Indians struggle with on a daily basis.

There has been a tremendous decline in—or perhaps a greater exposure of—the functioning of international agencies over the past decades, with their data and listings clearly pushing particular narratives and alliances. There has, concomitantly, been a growing loss of faith in such agencies. One can hardly forget the scandalous behaviour of the World Health Organisation and its Director General, Tedanos Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who helped in the cover-up of China’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic.

WHO and its Director General, a Foreign Policy commentary noted “became China’s Coronavirus accomplice”. “WHO was uncritically repeating information from the Chinese authorities, ignoring warnings from Taiwanese doctors… and reluctant to declare a ‘public health emergency of international concern’.” As a result of the deliberate blocking of access in the initial months, and China’s smokescreen, the virus spread rapidly across the world, resulting in more than seven million deaths and nearly 753 million people infected.

Unsurprisingly, WHO receives a very substantial proportion of its funding from Beijing. Another large proportion of funding comes from the US, which subsequent disclosures indicate, also had a joint research programme ongoing with the Wuhan Laboratory, where the virus is widely believed to have originated. Recent US Senate hearings on the origins of the pandemic have exposed the deceit and misdirection that muddied the debate over the years.

Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF) is not, of course, an international institution of the same category; it is an international non-government organisation of high repute, which boasts consultative status with the United Nations and UNESCO, among others. It has enjoyed immense credibility as a source of assessment relating to press freedom globally, and the annually published Press Freedom Index was widely relied on.

Astonishingly, the 2023 edition of the Index saw India fall abruptly from the 150th rank in 2022 to the 161st in 2023. In 2021, India was ranked 142nd. There can be little doubt that Press freedom in India has seen a drastic decline since 2014 (rank 140), when the Modi government came to power and, on first sight, the ranking was widely accepted, particularly in liberal circles, as validation of their accusations of repression, infiltration and debasement of the Press—the transformation of the mainstream into ‘godi media’.

A somewhat closer look, however, is disquieting. Pakistan, we discover, ranked at 150 in 2023 and, even more astonishingly, Afghanistan—under Taliban rule, with all independent media shut down, all international media chased out, and with severe edicts banning any reportage or commentary critical of the government—ranked at a relatively respectable 152nd. For all the purportedly objective ‘indicators’ on which the rankings are based, it is difficult to believe that India lists 11 ranks below Pakistan, and nine ranks below a Talibanised Afghanistan.

The Press Freedom Index 2024 makes a marginal correction, taking India up to 159, and Afghanistan down to 178. Pakistan falls a couple of ranks to 152. It is not clear what extraordinary transformations occurred in Afghanistan, for it to drop 26 ranks in a single year. India places seven ranks below Pakistan, where security agencies are accused of the targeted killing and abduction of several journalists over the years, and terrorist groups have their own hit lists for uncooperative media. RSF, moreover, clarifies,

“Some countries’ rises in the Index are misleading in as much as their scores fell and the Index rises were the result of falls by countries previously above them. This is the case with India (159th), which was pushed up two places despite recently adopting more draconian laws.” Despite the improvement in ranking, consequently, India was, in fact, worse off. Astonishingly, on its ‘security indicators’ for 2024, India fares worse than conflict-ravaged Yemen, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the electoral dictatorship in Egypt, among others.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that various international ‘indices’ are instrumentalised by the major powers to push a particular narrative, to exert pressure on target states whose foreign affairs postures are not aligned with theirs. Similar distortions have been pointed out in several other ‘global indices’ in recent times.

India’s deterioration on a multiplicity of parameters over the past decade is a reality that Indians struggle with on a daily basis. With disinformation and manipulation dominating the media, with the constant suppression of statistics and the rampant circulation of falsehoods, trust is the one factor that has most been undermined. Objective, reliable sources of data and assessment are essential in these circumstances, if the people are somehow to be pulled out of the quicksand of fabrications. By exaggerating the threat, by distorting assessments, global agencies and NGOs do the country and its people a grave disservice.

Ajai Sahni

Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal

The New Indian Express