Between Covid-19, censorship & criminals, Indian media struggles to survive

On National Journalism Day 2020 Indian media under unprecedented attack

Politics

November 17, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Between Covid-19, censorship & criminals, Indian media struggles to survive

Dozens of cases have been lodged against journalists for their critical articles or videos about Yogi and his out of the world claims

On National Journalism Day 2020, facing onslaught from government and business, free media is an increasingly rare phenomenon in India.

“Our media fraternity is working tirelessly towards strengthening the foundations of our great nation. Modi govt is committed towards the freedom of Press and strongly oppose those who throttle it,” union home minister Amit Shah tweeted on the National Journalism Day 2020.

“Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of our democracy, but it is a responsible freedom,” tweeted Union information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar.

Ironically, while both ministers salute press freedom and its importance in a democracy, the ministries run by them have been responsible for the biggest and most flagrant violations of press freedom in the country since the independence in 1947. An increasing number of journalists find themselves locked up in prisons for not toeing the official line or criticising the government.

The same government has also presided over the world’s longest shutdown of internet and an undeclared war on press in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir which was divided and put under permanent central rule as a union territory and numerous journalists either placed under house arrest or jailed, while their media were shut down.

Little wonder then that over the past five years, the country’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom body, has slipped further from an uncomplimentary 136 to 142. Just a few weeks ago, the International Press Institute and Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drop all charges against journalists, including those under the sedition laws, that have been imposed on them for their work.

Meanwhile, RSF says that a few hours before the sudden lockdown had been announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 25, Modi had personally asked owners and editors of the 20 largest mainstream media outlets to publish ‘positive stories’ about the crisis and to ‘act as a link between government and people’.

RSF goes on to say that barely four days later, it had emerged that the epidemic in India had officially gone from limited local transmission of Covid-19 to community transmission. “But this information, of absolutely fundamental public interest, was not revealed in a government press note or at a press conference. It was inadvertently leaked in a health ministry directive to health professionals about operational procedures,” claims RSF.

The RSF claims that the government continued to publicly maintain that India was still in the lower phase of limited local transmission. “Ever since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the Indian authorities have displayed a lack of transparency towards the media that could eventually prove deadly,” says Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Reporters are being denied access to public interest information and some are being prosecuted for revealing information. We urge Narendra Modi’s government to stop trying to impose its version of events and allow journalists to work with complete independence.”

On March 31, the government also approached the Supreme Court to ‘direct the media to publish nothing about the epidemic without first ascertaining the facts from the mechanism provided by the government’. “This was tantamount to prior censorship, to forcing journalists to publish only government-approved information,” says RSF. Thankfully, due to the outcry over the blatant attempt to gag the media, the top court did not accede to the government. It did direct the media that to avoid the dissemination of “unverified news capable of causing panic,” they must “refer to and publish the official version about the developments” including the government’s daily bulletin.

Using sedition to silence free media

The practice of using sedition laws to silence critical journalists is not really new in India, but it seems to have caught the fancy of the current rulers of the central as well as state governments. The state of Uttar Pradesh seems to have been the worst offender as its chief minister Yogi Adityanath has had journalists locked up for even a simple critical post on Facebook. Dozens of cases have been lodged against journalists for their critical articles or videos about Yogi and his out of the world claims. Last month, a journalist working with a news portal in Kerala was arrested while he was on his way to Hathras to cover gangrape and murder of a Dalit minor girl. Siddique Kappan was charged under the dreaded Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for ‘conspiring’ against the state government. Just a few months earlier, another journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested by the UP police for making sarcastic remarks about Adityanath on Twitter.

While Kanojia was only recently released on bail, after nearly three months in jail, Kappan’s family has moved the Supreme Court asking for him to be bailed. However, the Supreme Court refused to entertain the petition asking Kappan to approach the High Court and the judges, led by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde, said that they were trying to discourage use of Article 32, which allows anyone to approach the top court for enforcement of their fundamental rights.

Just a couple of days before this statement, in the case of Republic Television anchor Arnab Goswami’s arrest by Mumbai police, CJI Bobde had reminded the Maharashtra government about the existence of Article 32 and granted bail to Goswami in the rapid hearing.

The Supreme Court turning its back on the case sends a bad signal not only to the media but indeed the people at large as freedom of expression is a right guaranteed by the Constitution to everyone and if the top court does not proactively defend this fundamental right, it spells trouble for Indian democracy, not just the media.

Govt sights on OTT & digital media

Having largely tamed the television media, which has over the years displaced the print media as the leading source of news for most Indians, the government now has set its sights on the digital space as the last five years have seen an explosion in the number of digital media platforms, most of whom are among the last ramparts of free speech and bold journalism that does not shy away from criticizing the government or exposing the numerous falsities propagated by the ruling party and its supporters.

Ironically, on the National Press Day, information and broadcasting minister Javadekar said that the government was mulling over strengthening regulatory mechanisms for the news media in the country and is also considering a new code of conduct for television. Javadekar claimed that the government does not want to interfere, but some of the regulatory issues are being considered by his ministry. He also spoke of the necessity for regulation of online platforms.

‘Responsible freedom’ is the new mantra being propagated by the government for the press and especially the online media including the Over The Top (OTT) platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime. “There is neither a Press Council like system for them, nor is there any self-regulation. While there is some very good content on some of them, there are some bad and some very bad films and shows too. Because of this, there too what can be done, people are suggesting and we are listening,” Javadekar said and added that the ministry gets ‘many letters every day and we consider them all’.

“The government does not want to interfere in it, and does not want to restrict any freedom, but this is your responsibility, that if government has faith in you should set an example of responsible freedom, responsible journalism,” Javadekar said.

With the current establishment equating ‘responsible’ journalism to ‘toeing the official line’ expect many more attacks on the already constrained space for free media in India.

Journalists killed and those behind bars in 2020

According to the Reporters Sans Frontier, a global media freedom organisation, at least two journalists have so far been killed in India in 2020 for doing their job. On November 8, a Tamil Nadu journalist named Isravel Moses, working with Tamizhan TV was attacked with sickles for reporting on illegal land and ganja sale. He died in the attack.

On June 19, Shubham Mani Tripathi was killed in Uttar Pradesh for reporting on illegal sand mining.

Besides the two murders, there have been dozens of cases of journalists being arrested or detained by the police for simply doing their jobs. A few cases highlighted by the RSF are listed below.

Pawan Chaudhary, Bihar

A web journalist, Pawan Choudhary, 30, was arrested on April 6, in Munger in Bihar on the charges of spreading misinformation about the death of a COVID-19 patient.

Damodharan, Tamil Nadu

A television journalist who had shot visuals of a pharmacy staff handing out medicines to patients without a doctor’s consultation at the Minjur Primary Health Centre in Minjur in Tamil Nadu was arrested on April 7 on charges of being a fake journalist.

Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai, Jammu & Kashmir

A prominent journalist working for Kashmir Observer, an English daily in Srinagar, Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai was detained in Bandipore district of Jammu & Kashmir on April 11 when he had gone to report violation of lockdown.

Rahul Kulkarni, Maharashtra

On April 15, ABP News correspondent Rahul Kulkarni was arrested by Mumbai police over his claim that the railways would restart operations which the police alleged may have prompted the gathering of hundreds of migrants outside the Bandra station in Mumbai.

Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, Jerald Aruldas and M Balaji, Tamil Nadu

Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, founder of Simpli City, a Tamil news portal, was held on April 23 in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu for filing news reports related to COVID-19. The news portal published two stories: one related to doctors facing a shortage of food and personal protective equipment (PPE) kit at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital; and the other report on how to ration items were being diverted by employees of PDS shops.

Zubair Ahmed, Andaman & Nicobar Islands

Zubair Ahmed, a freelance journalist, was held on April 27, in Andaman & Nicobar for posting a tweet questioning why families were placed under home quarantine for merely speaking over the phone with Coronavirus patients.

Abhilash Padachery, Andaman & Nicobar Islands

On 1 May 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested three youths, including Abhilash Padachery, an online journalist, on the charges of having links with the Maoists in Kerala.

Dhaval Patel, Gujarat

Editor of an online Gujarati news portal, Face of Nation, Dhaval Patel was arrested by Gujarat police on May 11on charges of sedition for allegedly publishing a speculative report on a possible change in leadership due to criticism over the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Gujarat.

Cyber bullying

RSF has also reported that a number of Indian journalists have also been targets of cyber-harassment. The victims have included freelance journalist Vidya Krishnan, who has been subjected to an online hate campaign, including many calls for her to be murdered or gang-raped, ever since The Atlantic, a US monthly magazine, published an article criticising the “callousness” of India’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic.

“The threats of physical violence, rape and torture have been compounded by the health ministry’s insistence on describing any critical reporting as ‘fake news’,” she said. “Almost all science journalists in India are getting trolled for ‘unpatriotic’ coverage. In my case it got a little crazier because I am Indian and I am writing for Western publications against the Indian government,” she told RSF.

Another freelancer, Mumbai-based Rashmi Puranik, was attacked online by ruling BJP activists after she posted a tweet criticising the prime minister’s call for people to light traditional Hindu candles to combat the coronavirus. She received many extremely obscene messages and, after she filed a complaint, one of these activists was finally detained by the police in Nashik, 160 km northeast of Mumbai.

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