New Delhi, April 25 (IANS) India dropped down to 138th rank, two points below the previous year, in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by global watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday.
The report blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "troll army" for sharing and amplifying hate speeches targeting journalists on social networks.
"In India (down from 136 ranking in 2017), hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pay," it stated.
"With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals," the report said.
It mentioned that at least three of the journalists, including Gauri Lankesh murdered in 2017, were targeted in connection with their work.
"Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which 'sedition' is punishable by life imprisonment," it stated.
The report said that although "no journalist has so far been convicted of sedition, but the threat encourages self-censorship".
It also said "Kashmiri journalists were often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government's tacit consent".
The Reporters Without Borders warned that "hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism posed a threat to democracies".
Coming to international stage, the report accused US President Donald Trump, Russia and China of perpetrating anti-media rhetoric and actively seeking to curb press freedom.
It said that Trump's presidency fostered further decline in journalists' right to report. "It appears the Trump effect has only amplified the disappointing press freedom climate that predated his presidency".
The report voiced concern about the "censorship and surveillance" of journalists in China, as well as President Xi Jinping's efforts to export its "media control model" to strangle dissent across Asia.
"Xi Jinping's China is getting closer and closer to a contemporary version of totalitarianism," the report read.
Out of the top five countries where the press freedom situation deteriorated the most, four of them are in Europe. Malta, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Serbia all fell substantially in their ranking.
"With the rise of populist politics and 'strongman' leaders, Europe's downward trend will likely continue, the RSF said. The situation in Poland and Hungary was also particularly concerning, the watchdog said.
Norway held its place at the top of the World Press Freedom Index for the second year in a row, while North Korea remained in last place out of the 180 countries ranked.