03 May 2017 19:09 IST

Is press freedom becoming an oxymoron?

Journalists receive a staggering level of abuse on the internet, just for doing their jobs

It’s tough to be an objective, curious and independent journalist today.

Take a look at the number of journalists who are killed every year globally. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 72 journalists were killed in 2015, and 48 in 2016; 29 others were killed last year, though the Committee is yet to confirm whether the killings were directly connected to their jobs.

There are few jobs that have a similar risk profile. For instance, does an IT professional get killed for coding?

In India, 40 journalists have been killed since 1992, while the motives are yet to be confirmed for 27 others who also lost their lives. About half of those killed were covering politics and 40 per cent of them were investigating corruption cases. As journalists cover multiple beats, there is little doubt that many of those who were killed were investigating cases of political corruption.

Support for press

Last year, when Rajdeo Ranjan, bureau chief of Hindi daily newspaper Hindustan in Siwan, was killedmany pointed fingers at jailed RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin. The CBI is still investigating the case.

The working environment of journalists is very different in Syria, which has been topping this dubious table for a few years now. Since 2011, 108 journalists were killed in the country; 94 per cent of these professionals were covering the ongoing civil war.

While not much can be hoped for from Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the right statements on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. He tweeted, “World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.”

This is encouraging, coming from the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. But can he ensure that his administration, including the police, will follow his principle?

This is important because as this Hoot article points out, journalists are increasingly finding it difficult to get support from enforcers of the law. While in some cases the police decline to give them protection, in others, scribes have to push for an FIR to be registered, and then repeatedly follow up to ensure that the cases are being investigated.

Virtual pressure

The Prime Minister had also noted in a second tweet: “In today’s day and age, social media has emerged as an active medium of engagement and has added more vigour to press freedom.”

But social media has also become a constant source of abuse for journalists. One may not agree with the work of some of the journalists who are incessantly attacked by trolls, but their right to do their work and voice their opinions cannot be compromised. Many of them get threats of death and rape, and the foul language used in social media is dispiriting, to say the least. Constant trolling impacts a journalist’s work.

Sadly, there have been few attempts to regulate or police the trolls on social media.

It would help if data can be created, similar to CPJ’s collation of scribe deaths, on trolls and instances of abuse on social media.

Perhaps it would help more if the Prime Minister could also initiate steps to make the working environment of journalists more conducive to ensuring a free and vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.