The Debate | Opinion | South Asia

Worsening Press Freedom Undermines G20 Host India’s Credibility

India must ensure media freedom if it wants to live up to its reputation as the world’s largest democracy alongside being a global economic powerhouse.

Worsening Press Freedom Undermines G20 Host India’s Credibility

Fahad Shah, right, editor-in-chief of Kashmir Walla, works on his computer inside the newsroom at his office in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File

India’s G-20 presidency this year has been hailed as a watershed moment — it is not only the first time the country is chairing the club of the world’s leading economies but also a first for South Asia.

Excitement is building in the run-up to the September 9-10 leaders’ summit in Delhi, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered a pragmatic response when asked about how the summit could boost the country’s international image.

“I don’t think the image of a country and its branding can be bolstered through a summit. The financial world works on hard facts. It works on performance and not perception,” he told India’s Business Today magazine in an interview.

Modi is right. Economies move on hard facts, something increasingly in short supply in India.

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has overseen a significant deterioration in press freedom in India. Journalists critical of the government have been jailed, harassed, and surveilled for their work.

As the world’s leaders embark on New Delhi, it is imperative that G-20 members — many of which purport to support a free press — call on India to course correct and abandon mounting legislation that threatens press freedom.

The Indian government has extensively weaponized draconian security laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, against journalists for their critical reporting.

In the past month, Indian lawmakers have passed a new data protection law and introduced three bills into Parliament that, if ratified, could further threaten the independence of the press.

Digital freedoms have also worsened during Modi’s tenure, with India consistently ranking as the country with the highest rate of internet shutdowns. The numerous shutdowns — most recently in the state of Manipur, which was hit by ethnic violence — hinder the ability of journalists to report freely, denying communities access to accurate information at crucial times.

Throughout the G-20 presidency, Modi has sought to burnish the country’s credentials as a world leader and as the voice of the Global South, taking on the developed world on issues like climate justice, where rich countries have repeatedly failed to deliver a promised $100 billion a year to vulnerable states to adapt to a warmer planet.

But at home, India is stifling dissent and the voices of the same vulnerable communities it purports to speak for as a Global South leader. This includes persistent official efforts to censor reporting by local journalists on the government’s treatment of India’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority. Journalists like Shahina K.K. have faced extensive harassment by Indian right-wing groups aiming to muzzle her reporting on religious minorities and vulnerable caste groups. She was one of the first journalists charged under the anti-terror UAPA law for a case opened in 2010. Thirteen years later, she is still awaiting trial on that case.

Foreign media have also been targeted. In February, tax authorities raided the British broadcaster BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai over alleged tax irregularities, following the airing of a BBC documentary investigating Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which an estimated 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

India has denied visas to foreign media, thwarting public-interest reporting in a move that runs counter to the country’s projected vision as a beacon of democracy.

Ongoing media repression in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir provides a close-up glimpse into the broader crackdown in India. Since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy in 2019, the collapse of press freedom in the Muslim-majority region is stark.

Most journalists arbitrarily detained in India are Kashmiri. Local media face continuous repression, from government raids on their homes and offices to travel bans. The situation hit a new low in August when the government banned the website and social media accounts of The Kashmir Walla, one of the last few local media outlets. This came on top of its founder and editor Fahad Shah being detained for the past 18 months.

Kashmir remains mostly off-limits to foreign correspondents, who also faced increasing visa uncertainties elsewhere in India. The repression stands in sharp contrast to a G-20 tourism meeting India hosted in May in Kashmir, in an attempt to convey a sense of normalcy.

With its economic and political clout, India can use its G-20 presidency to leave a real mark on the global stage and as a leading voice of the Global South.

But it needs to start by matching its words with actions — by fulfilling its international press freedom obligations as well as upholding India’s constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

India once had a strong tradition of a free press. It must return to this, if it wants to live up to its reputation as the world’s largest democracy alongside being a global economic powerhouse — which goes well beyond simply holding elections.