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The Conflict between National Interest and Press Freedom in South Asia

By Tanvee Shehrawat

Are national interest and press freedom diametrically opposed in the geopolitical landscape of South Asia? The article seeks to explore this question through instances of shrinking press freedom in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In relation to a growing nationalist streak, the relevance of media diplomacy in harboring cooperation, especially in a region troubled with inter-state disagreements, could possess great value.

Populism, national interest, and shrinking freedom of the press. These three terms have slowly come to define the landscape of South Asia’s media. In February of 2020, Twitter blocked over 500 accounts linked to the farmer protests in India. The protests, which started in November 2020 over the issue of three controversial farm laws, garnered a flurry of international support in solidarity with the farmers of North India. Detaining journalists under the shroud of sedition laws such as The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), has further endangered free journalism in the country. The World Press Freedom index, spearheaded by Reporters Without Borders , is a global barometer for press freedom measured across 180 countries where India currently ranks in the 142nd place for 2021, thereby making it one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to report in. Blasphemy laws and smear campaigns by intelligence agencies in Pakistan, particularly against female journalists, curtail the extent to which free journalism can exist in the country. Pakistan ranked 145th on the index. In Bangladesh, the underlying threat to press freedom has been the manner in which the Sheikh Hasina government has tightened its grip on, and limited the scope of civic freedoms. The 2018 Digital Security Act, gave Bangladesh’s security personnel the authority to arrest anyone without a warrant, on grounds of criticising the government and its policies online. Bangladesh ranks 155th on the index, dropping 10 places from just about 5 years ago. In Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime, many journalists have disappeared while some met the brutal fate of murder, with a pointed target still lingering on journalists from the minority Tamil community. Sri Lanka ranks 127th on the index

All across South Asia, there has been an evident, and concerning, trend on the rise- a declining democratic backdrop crippled by shrinking press freedom. A free media, without the presence of heavy governmental regulations, not only acts a watchdog protecting democratic values but also provides an impetus to diplomatic relations and intra-regional capacity-building measures. In a digital age where information is readily available with the flick of your finger, journalistic freedom becomes absolutely necessary in preventing, or at least providing a counter to, manufactured information. 

The underlying facts point us towards the realisation that in the age of information, independent journalism is a crucial linkage in maintaining governmental legitimacy, which has allowed individuals to critically act as watchdogs when it comes to reporting issues of regional and even national importance. Acts which censor independent journalism in the backdrop of rising nationalism influenced by the ruling party’s ideology is a cause for concern as it draws our attention to an overarching larger problem- the issue of stringent surveillance on journalists across the region. As a region that can seriously benefit from capacity building for regional integration, with a history of inter-state tensions amongst most countries, the media emerges as the sole actor that has bridged the gap between political motivations and on-ground realities. When the State, and its diplomacy fail to deliver, journalistic principles step in to present a fair picture comprising the facts involved. It is evident that an authoritarian current is on the rise, and cooperation in the region faces obstacles that are difficult to permeate without the mediation of journalists. For instance, in high pressure situations such as border clashes between India and Pakistan, which have been frequent since the Partition of 1947, journalists have helped navigate the highly polarised narrative that builds on both sides. 

Media diplomacy, with journalists at its core, is a medium that can influence government policies and promote foreign policy. With the connectivity of social media, television and radio, the media encompasses aspects of public diplomacy where free press and unbiased journalism in the media helps build confidence, advance negotiations, and mobilise public support through its various elements. McLuhan argued that the real battlefield today is electronic in the age of information, with the ammunition being information and images. Distortions in policy stemming from propaganda wars in media diplomacy can manifest negative consequences, an instance of which we can clearly see engulfing us with ideological flanks being used to polarise the masses. With media diplomacy, the informational advantage that diplomats once possessed diminished, making diplomacy became more accessible and less formal. The overlap between the two- in gathering and disseminating information- marks the key role that media and mass communication play in articulating and promoting a country’s policy across its borders. Efforts to censor the free flow of information and subsequently the freedom of expression with ‘national interest’ places journalism at a crossroads in a landscape that is discouraging its very existence. For example, the prevalent Hindu nationalist agenda in India, pushed the interests of the BJP and its consolidated political power into the forefront. UAPA alone has led to the arrests of around 10,000 Indians over the past seven years. The ruling government has successfully leveraged ‘national interest’ to curb free journalism, and the practice of setting an example through detentions has resulted in deterring free speech. However, only 253 out of the 10,000 arrests have been convicted so far, showing how arbitrary such laws are. Irrespective of the capacity in which independent citizens on social media, journalists and media houses report on the government and its policies, they can be detained on the precarious pretext of sedition. What we can witness through this series of events is that under the guise of ‘national interest’  governments across South Asia are conveniently justifying their individual interests and excluding the interests of their citizens while overriding civic values. 

The instinct of the government to control information has been exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which created the perfect breeding ground for misinformation and fake news. While misinformation most definitely requires countering but ideologically driven policies that empathise with the ruling party, skews the nature of such countering by attacking free journalism. A ruthless tool of censorship like India’s UAPA, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and Bangladesh’s Digital Securities Act has resulted in the suppression of the core journalistic principle of objectivity- because being objective can now result in punishment under the law. In an effort to control the narrative, governments are inadvertently participating in the takedown of important information. This goes beyond internal repercussions because information and efforts of the media to engage in diplomacy don’t exist in a domestic vacuum, they transcend borders thereby sending reverberations across a larger region. The perspective that critical journalism is leading to the tarnishing of a country’s international image stands diametrically opposed to objectivity and maintaining public accountability- principles that free journalism seeks to uphold. A brand new template for what the media should behave like isn’t just a smear campaign, but a sustained effort by populist and majoritarian governments in South Asia that are systematically delegitimising the agency of journalists. At the same time, certain media houses have been incorporated by the government as a part of their propaganda model, which poses the twin threat of undermining the agency of free speech by allowing manufactured information to flourish, while fact-based information is stifled. This threatens the scope of media diplomacy as a whole, because without accurate reportage journalism becomes just another smokescreen that propagates government-friendly information, consequently taking away the capacity to build intra-regional capacity through a people-friendly medium.                                                                                                          

Tanvee is a third year undergraduate studying Political Science and International Relations at Ashoka University. 
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