India loses 'free' status as it 'consistently slipped' in press freedom index, show new findings

The 10th edition of the Digital News Report shows how COVID-19 has transformed the news industry around the world and that trust in news has grown.

(Representational Image: Pixabay)



The Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in collaboration with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) released their latest findings in the 10th edition of the Digital News Report on Wednesday, which show India's free status as having shifted to "partially free" status.

The report highlights new findings about digital news consumption and shows how COVID-19 has transformed the news industry around the world. The report is based on a YouGov survey of more than 92,000 online news consumers in 46 markets, including India, Indonesia, Thailand, Nigeria, Colombia and Peru for the first time.

The Asian College of Journalism provided support in identifying news brands and other specific details relevant for the Indian market in the survey questionnaire, verifying Hindi translation of the questionnaire, and contextualising the main findings for India in its country profile, stated a release.

It stated that the report mentioned India as having "consistently slipped" in the Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders in the last few years, occupying 142nd position out of 180 countries.

RSF’s 2021 report notes journalists in India face increasing violence, trolling, and threats of rape and death on social media, along with excessive use of sedition laws for criticism of the government or its policies, it stated. Freedom House changed India’s status from ‘free’ to a ‘partly free’ country earlier this year, it added.   

It also stated that India is one of the strongest mobile-focused markets in this survey, with 73 per cent of the respondents using smartphones to access news. Overall, 82 per cent of the respondents source news online (including social media), while 63 per cent source news from social media platforms. WhatsApp and YouTube are the top social media platforms from where people get their news (53 per cent of respondents) amid concerns of rampant misinformation on these platforms, it added.

On an average, trust in news has grown across the world, with 44 per cent of the total sample for all media markets saying they trust most news most of the time. Finland had the highest levels of overall trust in news (65 per cent) while the US had the lowest levels of trust (29 per cent), it mentioned. India, however, ranked lower at 31 among 46 countries, with 38 per cent of the respondents saying that they trust news overall, it added.

The survey shows that legacy print brands and government broadcasters score high on trust levels among news consumers in India, the release stated. Print media, while securing higher levels of trust, suffered heavily from the economic slowdown due to the pandemic, with decrease in advertisement revenues and circulation, resulting in job losses and salary cuts, it added.

It further stated that in India, the respondents were mainly English-speaking, online news users, leaning towards a more affluent, younger, educated, and city-dwelling population. They represent a small portion of a diverse and vibrant media market in the country. Therefore, the findings should not be taken to be nationally representative, it added.

For India, the report shows that despite the growing popularity of digital media with the surveyed audience, which tends to lean towards an urban and educated population, television remains the most popular source overall.

It stated that India has altogether 392 news channels, dominated by regional language channels and private players. The report found that broadcast television channels, like print media in India, are self-regulated and often have strong political affiliations and corporate ownership, with no regulations on cross-media ownership. A culture of 24×7 news channels operating on ‘breaking news’ models and polarised debates often distort and sensationalise news, as per the report.

The report also found that individual members of the ruling BJP and groups aligned with the party are alleged to systematically spread false and misleading information via social media and other platforms. In late 2020, Facebook India’s policy head resigned after accusations that the company deliberately took a lenient line on ruling party supporters who allegedly violated hate speech rules with anti-Muslim posts, it stated. In response, the number of independent fact checking organisations has grown in recent years, with support from international tech companies and foundations, while mainstream media organisations have formed dedicated fact-checking and debunking teams.

The report further stated that with the growing popularity of online platforms, the Indian government has come up with controversial new proposals to expand the scope of existing legislation to social platforms, news websites, and Over the Top (OTT) content providers.

In an apparent step to limit false and objectionable information on social media platforms, new guidelines expect platforms to trace the origin of information that can be misleading or objectionable based on an order from a court or competent authority. Authorities have on several occasions asked platform companies to block posts, including those by activists, journalists, and opposition politicians, as per the report. DigiPub, a group of digital news organisations formed in 2020, says these rules go against the ‘fundamental principles of news’, giving control to the government to remove news content online, it stated.


First Published:June 24, 2021, 11:31 p.m.

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