The Narendra Modi government was committed to ensuring freedom of press in India and strongly opposes anyone trying to muzzle it, Union Home Minister Amit Shah wrote in a tweet on Monday.

“Our media fraternity is working tirelessly towards strengthening the foundations of our great nation,” Shah said. He also lauded the media for its role in spreading awareness about the coronavirus during the pandemic.

His statements came on the occasion of National Press Freedom day, celebrated every year on November 16, to commemorate the establishment of the Press Council of India in 1966.

“[The] Modi government is committed towards the freedom of press and strongly oppose those who throttle it,” the home minister said. “I applaud [the] media’s remarkable role during Covid-19.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also lauded the media on the occasion of National Press Day and said journalists have been doing an exceptional service by spreading awareness about the coronavirus. Modi said the media has acted as a valuable stakeholder in helping the government in its initiatives, PTI reported.

“Be it positive criticism or highlighting success stories, the media has been continuously adding strength to India’s democratic ethos,” the prime minister added in his speech for a webinar organised by the Press Council of India. “From creating mass awareness about important issues to contributing to a behavioural change in society for the larger good, we have seen how the media as a valued stakeholder has furthered the efforts of the government.”

Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar said that a free press was the cornerstone of democracy. “Freedom of press is very important but any freedom comes with responsibility. So, there has to be a responsible freedom and no sensationalism by the press,” the minister said, according to PTI. “The news should not be to deliberately defame anyone. The way freedom of press is being attacked these days is not good.”

The minister made the comments at a webinar organised by the Press Council of India on the role of media during the pandemic, and its impact, according to PTI. Javadekar also said that a committee, created to look into the manipulation of Television Rating Points by some news channels, will submit a report “very soon”.

Press freedom in India

The home minister’s claim about upholding media freedom comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has come under intense criticism for crushing dissent and targeting journalists who are critical of the Centre’s policies.

International press associations have accused Modi of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to silence its critics. As many as 55 journalists were targeted for covering the pandemic in India between March 25 – when lockdown was first imposed – and 31 May, a report by Rights and Risks Analysis Group has shown.

There has also been an increase in the number of journalists being charged for sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, with up to three years to life in prison. The most recent example of this being Kerala-based journalist, Siddique Kappan, who was arrested while he was trying to reach the family of a rape complaint in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh.

Prashant Kanojia, an independent journalist has been arrested twice in the past year for sedition by Uttar Pradesh. What the Adityanath government found “seditious” were tweets published by the journalists on his Twitter handle.

Besides, the digital blockade and the internet shutdown imposed in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir has attracted considerable criticism against the Centre from various rights organisations as well as at the international forum. Media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières, while downgrading India’s ratings on the Press Freedom Index, had said that India’s score was influenced by the digital blockage imposed in Kashmir.

On October 28, the Modi government raided the offices of the Greater Kashmir newspaper as well as AFP’s Kashmir correspondent Parvaiz Bukhari based on allegations of funding secessionist groups.

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