Condemning what it calls “alarming rise in state repression and clampdown on news outlets and journalists” that “expose” the anti-people nature of the establishment, India’s foremost civil society alliance, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has demanded “immediate release of arrested journalists, withdrawal of arbitrary charges and protection of media persons facing threats.”
Asserting that the “state is duty-bound to uphold the constitutionally guaranteed right of all media persons and groups reporting in public interest”, the statement states, “it is evident that large sections of mainstream media have been steadily converted into a toxic propaganda machine, reflecting solely the voice of the Centre, peddling lies, hate and misinformation incessantly.”
NAPM is outraged at the increasing number of instances of the state blatantly targeting news outlets and journalists who refuse to budge and report the truth in public interest, despite threats from those in power. These threats come either directly from the establishment and its agencies or from those whom the State covertly enables to stifle fair and fearless journalism.
Reports show that over the past decade, more than 150 journalists in India were arrested, had FIRs lodged against them, were detained and interrogated, either under ‘terror’ related charges, sedition charges or UAPA, and, after the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, under the Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act as well. The year 2020 alone saw 20% of these cases, with the large majority concentrated in BJP ruled states. At a time when many journalists are also staring at retrenchments and livelihood insecurity, the presence of threats entailed by the very nature of reporting under this regime only makes matters worse.
It is now evident that large sections of mainstream media have been steadily converted into a toxic propaganda machine, reflecting solely the voice of the Centre, peddling lies, hate and misinformation incessantly. At the same time, journalists who stand by the ethics of their profession face threats and even violence, with almost 200 physical attacks against them between 2014 and 2019, and multiple deaths.
Less than a month and a half into 2021, the instances of violence against and targeting of journalists are already too many to count. One of the most blatant examples is the recent raid by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on Newsclick, an independent online news platform. Starting the 9th February, over 8 premises, including the office of Newsclick, homes of some of its journalists and senior management were raided. For over a marathon 113 hours, the ED camped at the residence of editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha & writer Githa Hariharan, virtually placing them in home detention for 5 days. NewsClick has been consistently reporting on the farmers’ protests and also on an entire range of people’s movements and issues ignored by much of the mainstream media.
On 30th January, Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist who has contributed for The Caravan magazine and Junputh, was dragged by the Delhi Police across the police barricades at Singhu Border, from where he had been reporting from day 1 of the Farmers’ Protests. His arrest has been the most recent and horrific case of repression by the State against journalists instrumental in speaking truth to power. An FIR was registered against him in Alipur Police Station at 1.21 a.m. for allegedly ‘assaulting a police official’ at around 6.30 p.m, the previous evening. A video of the police brutally dragging him at the border went viral. His is one of the rare cases in recent times in which an arrested journalist receives bail, along with a clear acknowledgement by the Magistrate that ‘bail is a rule and jail is an exception.’
As many as five FIRs have been filed against prominent journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, The Caravan magazine’s editor and founder Paresh Nath, its editor Anant Nath and executive editor Vinod K Jose. The given grounds for the FIRs are allegedly ‘promoting enmity between different groups, insult with intent to provoke breach of peace and criminal conspiracy’. These FIRs pertain to tweets and reports which alleged that a farmer was shot on 26th January, during the Farmers’ Republic Day Parade. On 30th January, the UP police filed an FIR against Siddharth Varadarajan, Founder Editor of The Wire for a report that had the allegations of the dead farmer’s family.
Prior to this, on 25th January 2021, three Kanpur based TV journalists, Mohit Kashyap, Amit Singh and Yasin Ali, were booked after they ran a story that showed how children in a government school were shivering in the cold while practising yoga in the open. This took place during a government event which was attended by the technology minister in the UP government, Ajit Singh Pal. On 20th January 2021, a lower court in Gujarat issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in a defamation case filed by Adani against him for stories published in The Wire in 2017. The Gujarat High Court subsequently suspended the warrant and directed him to appear before the lower court in the matter.
Also in January, journalists Dhiren Sadokpam, Paojel Chaoba and M Joy Luwang from Manipur were arrested for a piece in The Frontier Manipur. They were charged with sedition and under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), laws which have been used indiscriminately across the country against activists and journalists alike, especially in the past few years.
These cases are proof to the attack on free speech that is underway across the country. They are a continuation of state repression against journalists who have been reporting on the government’s excesses over the rights of its citizens. The arrest and unconstitutional incarceration of Siddique Kappan is symbolic of this repression. He was on his way to report the Hathras rape case in Uttar Pradesh when he and three others were charged and arrested under UAPA. He has been in jail since October 2020 without trial or bail, not even allowed to meet his extremely ill, 90-year-old mother.
On 22nd November 2020, a TV journalist, identified as Pongi Naganna was arrested in Vishakapatnam, on the charge of being a ‘courier’ for the Maoists. This arrest was followed by arrests of many other activists under UAPA. Other major instances of journalists being targeted include the repeated arrests and incarceration over months, of Prashant Kanojia for social media posts calling out the UP Govt. Looking back at 2020 reveals that this trend is not new. In November, 2020 the Meghalaya High Court refused to quash criminal proceedings against Patricia Mukhim, Editor of Shillong Times for a Facebook post which was seen as tantamount to promoting ‘disharmony between communities’. Earlier in November 2019, N Venugupal, the editor of Veekshanam, a progressive Telugu magazine, was charged under UAPA and the Telangana Public Security Act.
On 26th September, 2020 senior journalist Kamal Shukla, editor of Bhumkal Sumatra magazine and head of the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, was physically assaulted in Kanker (North Bastar) district of Chhattisgarh. According to local journalists, the incident took place in the afternoon when Shukla went to the local police station after hearing that a journalist, Satish Yadav, had been assaulted by local municipal corporators belonging to the ruling Congress party. Also in September, 2020 journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested by the Manipur Police on charges of sedition to be granted bail only in December.
The continued incarceration, for over 2 years, of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who has been charged under UAPA allegedly on grounds unrelated to his journalism, is one of many reminders that journalists in Kashmir have been reporting under atrocious conditions of surveillance and violence, especially after the abrogation of Article 370. It is an extremely sad reflection of our ‘democracy’ that crucial constitutional matters such as blanket media and internet curbs in Kashmir have not been attended to with due urgency even by the Apex Court.
The attitude of the state towards journalists and the many strategies of suppression they employ also include and encourage attacks specifically targeted against women journalists. Journalist Neha Dixit who has been uncovering many uncomfortable truths of state excesses, has recently reported someone barging into her home, as well as stalking; and death and rape threats. Initially the police refused to file an FIR against the accused, in spite of the fact that she was able to provide them with phone numbers. An FIR was filed only after much pursuit, although there is little headway in the matter.
Recently, the Network of Women in Media India expressed concerns over Pushpa Rokde receiving warnings and death threats, allegedly from the ‘Maoist South Bastar Pamed Area Committee’, for her journalistic work as well as for short-term work unconnected to journalism. Considering her ongoing reporting on state violence, as well as on issues faced by Adivasi people in the villages of the area, it is difficult to imagine, though, why she would be accused by ‘Maoists’ of being a ‘police informer’, the statement said.
The journalists mentioned above are by no means representative of the range of attacks that have taken place in the past decade. Journalists working in conflict zones, in non-metro areas, face challenges and forms of repression which often do not even make the news. We, therefore, need to be constantly vigilant to safeguarding the interests of those who are reporting from difficult conditions.
In this context, we mark with increasing worry, the impunity with which so called ‘pro-nation’ individuals and groups can make public threats against journalists and media houses and engage in vitriolic conspiracy theory in the guise of ‘exposes’, inciting viewers to violence and at times even aggressively demanding that the state hang them! Not only is no action taken against them, but their voices are given further platform by position holders within the ruling party and its allies, while those against whom threats are made, are brought under state scrutiny for amplifying voices of dissent, and face arrests, raids and violence.
To return to the most recent events, a youtuber calling for prominent independent media journalists to ‘be hanged’ for questioning state interventions during lockdown and for reporting on the Farmers’ Protests has been brazenly lauded by BJP leaders including Kapil Mishra, Tajinder Bagga and CG Surya, ex Shiv-Sena member Ramesh Solanki, RSS volunteer who led the BJP’s social media campaign in 2014, Vikas Pandey, and others, with no consideration for the grotesque nature of the insinuations and the calls for violence. At the same time, the BJP government issues warnings to social media platforms to curtail what it calls ‘inflammatory content and misinformation,’ showing a convenient disregard for the truth and for the meaning of free speech and journalism.
Article-19 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech & expression through writing, printing, pictures, electronic broadcasting and media and it is fundamental to the idea of democracy. The control over information and news by the Central and state governments through brutal measures is nothing but fascist in nature and goes against the democratic framework enshrined in the Indian Constitution. While there is a need for legal frameworks for the protection of journalists, the steps proposed by some states, like the Maharashtra Media Person and Media Institutions Bill (2017) and the proposed Chhattisgarh Protection of Media Persons Act (2020) are insufficient, especially in instances where reporting takes place against government authorities who are then tasked with protecting the journalists.
National Alliance of People’s Movements condemns the violations of freedom of press and expression and the attempts to build a mainstream media entirely under the control of the state. In spite of the Supreme Court’s recent observation that inflammatory content needs to be checked, the patronage provided to media establishments by the current regime, turns them into tools of indoctrination and obfuscation of any form of opposition to government’s catering to corporate, majoritarian interests.
We demand that FIRs against journalists be quashed and those currently incarcerated be released immediately. The State must stop acting as the violator and protect the rights of journalists, especially women subjected to threats of gendered violence.
We denounce the state’s concerted efforts to vilify media houses and journalists who amplify the concerns of people belonging to minority communities, farmers, workers, women, activists, historically oppressed communities asking for their rights; or report on corporate, environmental crimes or provide critical reviews of anti-people policies. The long-standing demand of many journalists to ensure legislative protection for media persons, based on the PUCL draft bill and upholding human rights standards must be duly considered.
We continue to stand in solidarity with all the journalists who have been targeted by the central government or the state governments for reporting on issues that have exposed their anti-people policies, and with media platforms across the country which show the true state of affairs in society, be it in small towns or big cities.
In times of corporate and state-controlled mass media, we firmly believe that democracy can be rescued only if all of us, as citizens actively support and invest in independent journalism.