Jawed Ashraf, India's ambassador to France

New Delhi: The Indian government’s openness to be criticised and questioned on subjects such as the economy, international affairs and defence deals like the purchase of 36 Rafale jets are indicators of press freedom in India.

This is what India’s Ambassador to France, Jawed Ashraf, is learnt to have told Christophe Deloir, secretary general of Paris-based ‘Reporters Without Borders’ (Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF in French) in a meeting last month.

Ashraf and Deloir met in Paris in September to discuss the indicators of the World Press Freedom Index, 2020, in which India was ranked 142 among 180 countries. The head of RSF’s Asia Pacific desk Daniel Bastard was also present in the meeting.

Aside from the world press freedom rank, the Narendra Modi government is working on improving India’s rank on 29 such global indices. Meeting the agencies and stakeholders associated with the indices is a part of the process.

For the RSF’s index, the government has already constituted an Index Monitoring Cell, which has met a few times.

K.S. Dhatwalia, principal director-general of the Press Information Bureau, who chairs this panel, had also communicated with the RSF before the ambassador’s meeting with its chief.

Attacks On Journalists A Law And Order Problem

Sources in the index monitoring cell, who are privy to the record of the discussions, said that the RSF raised the issue of violence faced by journalists in India and the need to protect journalists and whistle-blowers by legislation.

To this, Ashraf said the incidents of attacks and violence on journalists are a consequence of the law and order situation in parts of India, but are misrepresented as targeted attacks on journalists by the state. This propagates the idea that journalists are unsafe in India.

The RSF also questioned the independence of Indian media outlets, and pointed to what it called the “oligarchy of some powerful individuals in the ownership of Indian media houses”.

The ambassador is learnt to have responded by saying that Indian culture has a “tradition of acceptance and tolerance of differences” beyond what is present anywhere else in the world. He also said the number of memes and cartoons created and circulated every day across media are also indicators of freedom of expression in Indian society.

Freedom of Press In J&K

The sources said, citing the record of the discussion, that the RSF also highlighted the internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir after its special status was scrapped on 5 August 2019, and the lack of availability of unsupervised internet for reporters.

To this, Ashraf responded by saying press freedom was not the real challenge in J&K, but messages through social media that threaten national security. This is why the government “was forced to shut down the internet for a short period of time”.

The ambassador also said that the press could access the internet through kiosks set up by the government, and pointed to the active reporting in the Indian and international media on the situation in Kashmir, which could only have been possible with “unhindered access to the internet and freedom to the press”.

What Lies Ahead

Discussing the methodology used by the RSF to calculate the press freedom index, Ashraf said that the Western media only includes a selected set of India experts for every issue, which generates “opinion pieces” in the garb of true reporting.

The ambassador told the RSF that its methodology does not take into account the diversity and scale of the mediascape in India.

The government, he said, is interested in working with the index monitoring cell and also with states to bring in legislation for the protection of journalists.

India is likely to suggest that in future engagements, the government may ask RSF to disclose the details of its methodology, as well as sources of information where the data used in analysis is taken from, for public access.

Another suggestion is expected to be that the RSF should share performance of countries in each of the seven parameters used to calculate the press freedom rank, as against a cumulative indicator for press freedom.

India feels RSF should include parameters which take into account the “complex socio-economic factors and diversity” of India for “more inclusive evaluations” by the RSF, and include inputs from experts in statistics.

RSF’s Response To The Meeting

“We hail India’s ambassador to France Jawed Ashraf’s proposition for a meeting. And we are very happy that Indian authorities have set up a committee to address the position of India in the (press freedom) index,” Daniel Bastard said when reached for the RSF’s comment on the meeting with the Indian envoy.

“We truly believe in dialogue and are always open to discussion, including on how to address issues that can improve a country’s position in the World Press Freedom Index,” he said in an email response. RSF is open to more meetings with Indian officials to give its inputs on the issue, he added.

Asked about the Indian concern that the methodology of determining the World Press Freedom Index does not take into account the diversity and scale of India’s media landscape, Prem Samy, head of the World Press Freedom Index, said the questionnaire tries to “capture a broad and universal vision of press freedom in the world”.

“It starts with questions about pluralism which helps to understand the media landscape of a country. We also rely on the expertise of our network (head of desks, correspondents and partners) to have this information,” Samy said.

“In the next two years, the methodology will be discussed with the possible addition of new questions and review of indicators,” he said in response to a question on whether RSF planned to change the methodology of determining press freedom.