06/03/2022, 19.57
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As Indian newspapers go increasingly digital, press freedom declines

by Alessandra De Poli

Print newspaper readership in India rose until 2019. The country remains the world’s second largest market with a circulation of 240 million copies. With the pandemic, digital content is up, but so is repression against journalists, a paradoxical situation in a country where the press was born to oppose British colonialism.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Khabar Lahariya (News Wave), a collective of women journalists, marked its 20th anniversary. The group covers news stories from a rural and feminist perspective, focusing on topics like abuse, water shortages, and access to electrical power in remote rural villages that find little room in mainstream media but are of the utmost interest to marginalised communities that have no other way to make their voices heard.

Founded by Dalit women married off as child brides who fled abusive relationships, the group today welcomes journalists from every ethnic background, caste, or religion, such as Muslim and tribal women. Its co-founder of the collective and current editor-in-chief, Kavita Bundelkhandi learnt to write at the age of 12.

At its start, Khabar Lahariya was a one-page newspaper delivered by hand in the villages of the Bundelkhan region; now it is only digital and its YouTube channel has more than half a million subscribers. Its story reflects the evolution of India’s information media.

India has the second largest newspaper market in the world with a total circulation of 240 million copies. About 100,000 papers were published in 2018 various languages, especially Hindi, with pint newspaper readership rising until 2019 when it started losing ground to digital media. However, in the past few years, press freedom has declined along with the rise of repression against journalists.

The first newspaper published in India was also the first in Asia and dates back to the times of British rule; in 1780, an Irishman, James Augustus Hicky founded Hicky's Bengal Gazette in Kolkata, then called Calcutta. 

Although published in English, it was already using Anglo-Indian terms (and even today’s Indian publications try to reflect the country’s linguistic variety). Because of its constant criticism of the colonial regime, the weekly folded after only two years with Hicky landing in jail and the East India Company seizing the paper’s types and printing press, silencing any opposition.

In 1826 the first weekly in Hindi, Udant Martand, appeared, followed in 1838 by The Times of India, which continues to be the country’s leading English-language newspaper, but only ninth in terms of total readership behind Hindi, Tamil and Marathi papers.

According to the Media Research Users Council (MRUC), 39 per cent of Indians over the age of 12 read at least one newspaper, up 9 per cent over 2014; however, readership for papers in the Oriya language was up by 84 per cent. Two years later, at the start of 2019, the number of readers in absolute terms rose from 407 to 425 million readers.

The growth of print newspapers stopped in 2019. According to research by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), exposure to media information fell in the period 2019-2021 over 2015-16: the percentage of women and men who said that they were not regularly exposed to mass media rose from 25 per cent and 14 per cent respectively to 41 per cent and 32 per cent.

However, these percentages do not take into account the growth of digital information. Mohit Jain, president of the Indian Newspaper Society, believes that the NFHS-5 survey data are not in line with what has happened to the information sector, with digital platform readers up considerably in the last three years, partly because of the lockdowns imposed during the pandemic.

“People are spending more time on reading newspapers and content online,” he said. “The lockdown brought them more leisure time, some of which was channelised in reading”, a situation backed by other data.

A December 2021 report commissioned by Google claimed that digital media is the fastest growing sector in the Indian market, with online news readership expected to top 700 million by 2026, with print media declining by 20 per cent. In fact, MRUC research shows that between 2017 and 2019 digital media consumption rose by 123 per cent.

However, one thing has remained unchanged over the years: newspaper readership goes up with income. More importantly, along with the aforementioned changes, India has seen a decline in press freedom in the last few years.

According to the annual report by Reporters Without Borders, which was released last month, India's global press freedom ranking fell again, from a score of 68 to 41 in ten years. Out of 180 countries, India ranked 150th in 2022, down from 142nd in 2021 and 132nd in 2016.

The erosion follows the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ultranationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hate campaigns against journalists on social media belie the government's claims that the press is free in India.

In the early phase of the pandemic, at least 55 journalists who challenged government infection statistics were arrested or threatened. More importantly, some major media are owned by rich individuals and families who are close to Prime Minister Modi, people like Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Industries, owner of 70 media outlets followed by at least 800 million Indians. 

To top it off, the business model of India’s newspapers is still largely dominated by advertising revenues, and governments are important advertisers. The Union (federal) government alone spends more than Rs 130 billion (more than US$ 5 billion) per year in print and online media.




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