Through economic throttling of the media, the powerful establishment and the PTI are imposing the worst kind of censorship
If there is another dangerous contagion in South Asia besides coronavirus, it is the ever-increasing curbs on the freedom of expression. Credible world organisations are describing the impact of media restrictions in three South Asian states as silence of the graveyards.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in its World Press Freedom Index 2020, identifies Bangladesh as the most dangerous country in South Asia for journalists, followed by India and Pakistan. The three are at the bottom of 180 countries cited in the index. Bhutan (ranking of 67) and the Maldives (ranking of 79) have substantially improved over last year, outshining the three ‘bastions of democracy’ in the region, two of them nuclear powers. Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan have also performed better.
Bangladesh has been declining in the ranking system since 2016. Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have been brutally controlling the media since the last election. Arrests and violent attacks on journalists have become routine. The government has banned two major newspapers from its press conferences. Ten journalists were attacked for reporting municipal elections in Dhaka early this year. Political leaders and officials have assaulted reporters for exposing corruption.
The story of Pakistan is no different. Contrary to the expectations that the media would be free after privatisation in 2002, more restrictions are in place. Currently, the powerful establishment and the PTI are imposing the worst kind of censorship with ruthless attacks, threats, and economic strangulation of media.
Freedom Network, an independent media watchdog in Pakistan, cites 91 cases of violence against journalists between May 2019 and April 2020 in its Annual Press Freedom Report 2020. Of these, seven journalists were killed, two abducted, nine arrested, ten attacked, 23 threatened, and eight implicated in legal cases.
Blocking TV talk shows and news reports has become common in Pakistan. Canceling government ads, and violent attacks on media workers are the new normal. These gruesome tactics have led to self-censorship in media, where journalists now think twice before they write anything.
As a result of economic strangulation of media outlets, censorship, and violence, between 2,000 and 3,000 media workers are either unemployed or working on ridiculously low wages.
The largest democracy in the world, India, has also become one of the leading violators of human rights. After gaining a majority in the last election, Prime Minister Narender Modi’s government has become openly intolerant of any criticism of its policies.
While no journalist has been killed since 2018, when six reporters were murdered, police brutalities against journalists, violence by BJP workers, and threats from government officials and political leaders are rampant.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reveals that in Uttar Pradesh, police have filed legal cases against journalists who reported corruption in government departments. In contrast, no legal action has been taken against the 2017 murder of a journalist in Ghazipur.
Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have arrested three journalists after the government recently allowed publication of newspapers. Additionally, slow, and low-quality of the internet in the area are creating more problems than facilitating the people and treating coronavirus patients in hospitals.
Aggressive state policies against media outlets in South Asia not only lead to censorship, but they also devastate media economies and accelerate unemployment amid the chaos caused by the coronavirus.
In fact, Covid-19 and the prevailing restrictions on the freedom of expression have become a double-edged sword for media workers as they try to expose government inefficiencies in dealing with the pandemic and its effects in the wake of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.
These horrible working conditions for journalists also invite criticism by world human rights organisations. For Rick Halperin, director of the Human Rights Programme at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas (US), “It is precisely the times of crisis which enhance the significance of a free and critical press so that the public can have the facts (and the truth) despite efforts to muzzle them. We urge all governments to allow the media and the press to do its job without censorship, attacks, or death.”
Most South Asian states suppress freedom of expression in the name of democracy, national security, and law and order. Their vicious tactics are increasingly becoming a ploy to strengthen political power, gain financial benefits, and promote fascist ideological thrusts.