On 6th July 2021, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization based in France, with the objective of preserving the inalienable right to freedom of information, released a list entitled ‘Predators of Press Freedom’. In this grim anthology of thirty-seven heads of State who have systematically suppressed the freedom of the press under their jurisdiction, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (defined as “Predator Since Taking Office” on 26th May 2014) appeared together with Imran Khan (Pakistan’s Prime Minister), Min Aung Hlaing (Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar) and Kim Jong-un (Supreme Leader of North Korea). Among an unenviable list of States under the World Press Freedom Index, India fell from a rank of 133rd out of 180 countries in 2016 to 142nd in 2021.
The purpose of this article is to explore the realities of the freedom of the press in contemporary India. It will first summarize the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) Report and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index (GII) Report to understand the specificities of their assessment of press freedom in India. It will also study the government’s response in the aftermath of these Reports. Second, it will study the constitutional basis of press freedom in India, alongside the historical basis for laws weaponized against them. Third, it will explore the probable causes behind the degradation of press freedom in India, with a special focus on the Covid-19 pandemic. Finally, it will study a recently released report that details the attacks on journalists in India in the last five years.
International Perspective of Freedom of Press in India
RSF published its first list of ‘Predators of Press Freedom’ in 2001, delineating that predator are those heads of States who “trample on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus, jailing journalists arbitrarily or inciting violence against them when they don’t have blood on their hands because they have directly or indirectly pushed for journalists to be murdered.” Thus, their compilation considers various indicators, including the censorship and prosecution of journalists and the free and critical media, the modus operandi of State-sponsored pogroms silencing free speech, and the impunity and arbitrariness with which these apparatus function. The 2021 WPFI Report describes Modi’s predatory methodology as “populism and disinformation”. It undertakes a historical overview of his time as the Chief Minister of Gujarat (2001) to scrutinize the techniques and methods deployed to trample press freedom. These include his cultivation of close reciprocal relationships with billionaire media moguls to construct a “laboratory for news and information control methods” he actionized since his Prime Ministership in 2014 to churn out speeches and information in the which mainstream media – all of which generally legitimize his ideology of nationalism and populism. These strategies benefit Modi because journalists are frightened of losing their jobs if they express opinions critical of the government since the chiefs of their organizations are close to the Prime Minister, and also because this level of closeness with the owners of media empires allows him a ready mouthpiece that provides constant coverage of his divisive speeches of disinformation accessible to a wide national audience. Thus, when journalists express dissent or media outlets refuse to fall in line, he utilizes the increasingly complicit judiciary to neutralize and silence them. The ambiguous charge of sedition (under Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code) punishable with life imprisonment is regularly imposed on these “anti-nationals” or (in the words of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s army on online trolls or ‘yodhas’) “sickulars” or “presstitutes”; who are also subjected to coordinated social media hate-campaigns replete with defamatory lawsuits and death threats, from Modi’s ‘bhakts’. The Report specifically states that these attacks by ‘bhakts’ target female journalists disproportionately, and mentions the cases of the infamous assassination of Gauri Lankesh, and the regular calls for gang rape of Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt – all of whom are female journalists critical of Modi’s Hindutva ideology. The Report simultaneously states that these virulent attacks on the press have become even more intense since Modi’s second win in 2019, as “India is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists trying to do their job properly”. The State pogrom to purge any ‘anti-nationalism’ from the public discourse, has led to journalists facing attacks from the police, Hindutva political activists, criminal groups, and corrupt local bureaucrats. Finally, the Report focuses on Kashmir and its leading daily, the Kashmir Times to illustrate how after the abrogation of Article 370, journalists are subject to “utterly Orwellian content regulations” and attacks by the ever-present paramilitary and armed police. The CPJ’s GII Report studies incidences across States where journalists are murdered as a consequence of their work reporting, and the national criminal justice systems are unsuccessful in adequately investigating, capturing and prosecuting the murderers. It ranked India and its environment of impunity in the top 12 globally alongside 11 other countries like Syria and Iraq. India (which has climbed up the rankings from 14th in 2018) now is part of a group of States that is the most unsafe for journalists, and “account for 80% of the global total of unsolved murders of journalists in the past decade”. The Report (2020) considered factors such as “corruption, weak institutions, and lack of political will to pursue robust investigations” to illustrate how somewhat stable democracies are gradually displaying alarming trends of nexuses between politicians, criminal groups and business leaders that punish “critical and investigative journalists” to silence. In CPJ researcher Aliya Iftikhar’s opinion, “Murder is really the highest form of censorship”, and the Report specifically mentions the largely ineffective prosecutions of the assassinations of Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari to demonstrate how such an environment makes journalists fear for their lives, and may lead to self-censorship of dissent.
Response of the Government
In February 2020, aware that the RSF could condemn the actions of the Modi government against journalists, 18 Ministries were formalized by the Index Monitoring Cell (IMC) under Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba that would strategize ways to improve India’s rank on 32 international indices; with the Broadcasting Ministry managing the freedom of press index. The Index Monitoring Cell was a 13-member committee consisting of bureaucrats from the I&B Ministry, the Press Information Bureau (PIB), the NITI Aayog, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, the Press Council of India, the Registrar of Newspapers of India, the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs and only two journalists. Accordingly, the PIB Director General corresponded with to Pierre Haski, the Chairman of the RSF enquiring upon the criteria for the survey and the rankings, which was followed by a meeting in September 2020 between Christophe Deloire (RSF’s Secretary General), Daniel Bastard (RSF’s Head of Asia Pacific desk), and Javed Ashraf (Ambassador to France). In Ashraf’s opinion, the fact that the government has allowed open journalistic criticism on the national economy, international relations, and defence deals like Rafale, entails that there is a healthy amount of press freedom in India. According to the minutes of the meeting however, the RSF was unconvinced. They stated that the nearly yearlong extended Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir from August 2019 could not logically be an indicator of a State that allowed press freedom, and that acts of violence against journalists were a regular occurrence across the country. In response, Ashraf maintained that attacks on journalists in India are by random criminal agents as a result of deteriorating law and order conditions in some regions, instead of being State-sponsored; and that the Internet ban was only to protect the security of the region and “members of the press could access the Internet through the Internet kiosks set up by the government and there was active reporting in Indian and international media on the situation in Kashmir, which could only have been possible with unhindered access to the Internet and freedom of the press.” The RSF also questioned the government on exercising unfair control over Twitter and Whatsapp. This was prescient, as was displayed in 2021 with the Modi government decreeing that over 50 Twitter posts be removed that criticised the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, vaccine shortages, paucity of life-saving medicines, oxygen and hospital beds, the thronging Kumbh Mela, and continuous election rallies that caused the second wave of the pandemic. Here, the argument provided by Baijayant Panda, the national vice-president of the BJP was that when the media has been restricted; it is because it has “peddled in fake news with the intention of fanning violence.” It was also displayed in correspondence between the Indian High Commission in Canberra and the Editor of the The Australian, Christian Dore. The letter condemned an article published in the newspaper as “baseless, malicious and slanderous”. The article had reproduced a Sunday Times article that declared that Modi had led India into a “viral apocalypse” as “arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence” fomented a terrible crisis which has been ignored by the “crowd-loving PM”. Just as the letter referred to generalizations about the government’s unproven effectiveness in handling the pandemic; so did the minutes of the meeting between the RSF and Ashraf that reiterated that India has a diverse, rich and pluralistic media. The IMC, however, has not convened since December 7, 2020. An important reason why that may be (apart from bureaucratic apathy) is that P. Sainath had sent a note that he demanded be published independently within the IMC’s report; the publication of which would have repudiated every claim of the government on the matter of press freedom in India. The note specified that though Modi had called the press an “essential service” in March 2020, this declaration doesn’t amount to anything given the violence meted out to journalists through false arrests, intimidation, and harassment by government groups and vigilantes. The note also made several recommendations including formulation of laws to impose police accountability; the need for the government to publicly recognize the “existence of a serious crisis in freedom of expression” reaching the “proportions of an undeclared emergency”; the need to immediately release journalists arrested and detained on “outrageous charges” such as journalist Siddique Kappan who was enroute to Uttar Pradesh to report on the gang-rape and murder of a young Dalit woman whose body was buried by the local police, and comedian Munawar Farooqi for jokes he allegedly intended to make, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act; and called for the institution of a legal defence body for journalists that derived its legitimacy from journalist unions, associations and professional organizations.
Freedom of Press in the Constitution
The constitutional basis of the freedom of the press in enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, that guarantees to all Indian citizens the fundamental right of the freedom of speech and expression. Though this provision does not explicitly provide for the freedom of the press, the judiciary has on several occasions interpreted it to entail freedom from undue interference by any authority on any expression or speech, which includes media content. Thus, the press has, like any other Indian citizen, the same fundamental freedom of expression. This freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions if the content expressed injures the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency and morality, and contempt of court. In Romesh Thapar vs. The State of Madras (1950), the Supreme Court held that without the freedom of speech and expression of the press, no free political discussion or public discussion, which is foundational to democratic organization is possible. In Union of India vs. Association for Democratic Reforms (2002), the Supreme Court observed that an informed citizenry is only possible to cultivate if the freedom of speech and expression also included the right to impart and receive information in order to counter “one-sided information, disinformation, misinformation, and non-information” In Indian Express Newspapers vs. Union of India (1984), the Court also held that the judiciary has a constitutional duty to uphold the freedom of the press that bolsters the democratic machinery, and nullify any interference of law or administration that injure that freedom. It defined the freedom of the press to include the “freedom to access all sources of information, freedom of publication, and freedom of circulation.” The history of the Indian independence movement cannot be separated from the role played by the press in engendering national consciousness. This is apparent from the fact that the British Raj enacted several legislations to clamp down the free press, the rubrics of which are used to suppress press freedom even today. The Press and Registration of Book Act (1867), was the earliest regulation placed upon the press by the colonial government which allowed it to control printing presses and newspapers by a mechanism of registration. The Official Secrets Act (1923), followed by the Indian Press (Emergency) Powers Act (1931) and the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1932) provided for restrictions on press freedom on matters of the security of the State, which supplied the basis for successive governments to censor any information that they can ambiguously prove as sabotaging national security. The provincial government was also authorized to enforce that a printing press deposit a security that would be forfeited if it published any content critical of the government. This provision regarding the forfeiture of security was also reiterated in the Press (Objectionable Matter) Act (1951), the preamble of which stated that its objective was “to provide against the printing and publication of incitement to crime and other objectionable matter.” The Press Council Act (1965) established the Press Council of India in 1996 on the recommendations of the Press Commission. Its stated aim was to establish a code of conduct that would maintain the high standards of press in India while also upholding the freedom of press.
Causes Behind the Fall of the Free Press
For many veteran journalists and scholars, the deterioration of the free press in India is not just because of the actions of the Modi government, or indeed even the UPA or Congress government, including Indira Gandhi’s formal declaration of Emergency and its effects on the freedom of the press. According to Siddharth Varadarajan, this has also happened equally due to journalists “not doing their job” through the decades post-independence and due to the inaction, commercialism, cronyism and apathy of the media and media houses, which of course have been bolstered by the government as well. Though the purpose of the media immediately after independence was to serve as a Fourth Estate that would represent the people (as it had during the freedom struggle), the global transformations in the 1990s which brought forth overarching changes in Indian domestic economic and foreign policies were accompanied by an explosion of the media. As India economically and politically restructured itself after the fall of the USSR and liberalization, privatization and globalization, the media that was previously only limited to a few State-owned channels displaying barebones news and entertainment content started exploding into several thousand channels, newspapers and journals. This led to media becoming a competitive space, where it became primarily important to rake in profits, be it either through cheap sensationalism or through advertisements crowding the front page. In 1995, the Supreme Court in the case Union of India vs. Cricket Association of Bengal ruled that airwaves were public property, and thus government regulation was required over them. As the Parliament debated and discussed policies, one of the matters of note was the cross-media ownership of several media companies – be it print, television, Internet or radio – by a single entity. Though there was some awareness that such monopoly of corporate authority over the media was contravening to free speech and expression, no real oppositional action was taken. Such intimacy with corporations transformed the media into a factory mediated by competitive market forces through augmented trivialization of actual news, because corporations began to run the media like they would do their businesses. But this leaves no space for free speech, as is evident from the Reliance Group “bailing out” Raghav Bahl to own Network 18, which did save the media house from bankruptcy, but also led to the loss of its independent voice. It is here that RSF’s assertion that Modi has cultivated close relationships with media emperors and business leaders becomes important, as media under these conditions is losing its critical role in democracy. As the media became more and more corporate without an effective policy framework, the stories they represented also changed; moving away from reporting on the travails of farmers, labourers and minorities from the ground, to now confining reporting to issues that would generate high television rating points (TRPs). Large sections of the media hesitate to undertake reportage on issues that could infringe upon the business interests of its corporate owners, especially as the politicians and police act as constant threats of retaliation to recalcitrant journalists, through “attempts to intimidate, harass, browbeat and stifle the media” according to the Editors Guild of India. As the remaining independent and critical media is threatened by the direct financial pressures of losses and the indirect pressure of repetitive and vague defamation litigations by the government, the freedom of the press is becoming increasingly suffocated. Ascertain media houses are incessantly supportive and even sycophantic of the government, they are able to broadcast and publish inflammatory hate-content against minorities with impunity, as well as allowing government misuse of power. These deep divisions in the media between partisan and independent networks have further weakened the media space. Today, as the government is gradually trying to control the digital media, through litigations against Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook that could lead to the loss of their status as intermediaries and indeed in the loss of the free Internet, press freedom is under more threat than ever.
Effect of the Covid-19 Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on press freedom in India. As India entered several successive lockdowns since March 24th 2020, journalists reporting on the government’s mishandling of the pandemic have been constantly charged with sedition and summoned to police stations. There are several instances of this. As the political leadership of Gujarat was changed by the BJP amidst the rapid rise of cases in the state, Dhaval Patel (editor, Face of Nation) who wrote critically about the same was charged and booked with sedition on May 11, 2020. According to the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN), Today-24’s Ravindra Saxena who covered the mismanagement and negligence at a Sitapur quarantine centre was slapped with an FIR filed by the Uttar Pradesh administration. As the crisis faced by the migrant labourers – from starvation to ineffective food distribution to police brutality at borders to irregularities in relief camps – grew more acute, the government also continued to persecute journalists reporting on it, leading to ten FIRs filed against six journalists in Himachal Pradesh, and Rahul Zori of TV9 Marathi in Dhule, Maharashtra. Through the pandemic, reporters also continued to be subjected to violence by the police and local vigilantes. SAMDEN has also reiterated that the BJP government has not merely used such extra-legal means to suppress free press during the pandemic. They have also resorted to petitioning the Supreme Court to quash any publication of Covid-19 related information that has not been cleared by the government, which the Court did deny; but also specified that media must “refer to and publish the official version of the developments.” The Editor’s Guild of India condemned the charging of Peerzada Ashiq (The Hindu), Masrat Zahra, and Gowhar Geelani (Deutsche Welle) for their reporting on Kashmir – termed by The International Press Institute as one of the “world’s most repressive spots for the press” – within 48 hours, as a “gross misuse of power.” The CPJ also severely decried the decision taken in April 2020 by the Maharashtra government and police to sentence Gautam Navlakha (a sexagenarian human rights activist, old hand reporter, and former editorial consultant for Economic and Political Weekly) to an overcrowded jail as cases mushroomed across the country. For activists and journalists protesting this decision, this could very well be “death sentence” for a senior journalist with heart disease. The Indian government has also refused to conduct daily press briefings on the ongoing pandemic since May 11, 2020 even as there are several tens of thousands of cases per day. Indeed, as the government has shirked all responsibility for transparency and accountability during the pandemic, the citizenry starved of adequate information about this life-threatening disease must either receive their information from often-erroneous social media forwards or from irregular speeches by Modi. The New Indian Express removed an article entitled “Centre’s COVID-19 Communication Plan: hold back data, gag agencies and scientists” enquiring about the inexplicable nonattendance of senior Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) officials in government press briefings and the disinclination of the government to share real data, from its site with no explanation. This illustrated that censorship on the free press has continued to come from different directions, as even some of The Caravan’s reports criticising the BJP government and India’s position on the press freedom indices, were withdrawn during Modi’s first term as Prime Minister. Siddharth Varadarajan (The Wire) was also charged for inciting panic through his tweet condemning Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath for attending a religious event the day before lockdown was announced, even though his presence at the event is a matter of public record.
Instances of Attacks on the Freedom of Press
According to the study entitled ‘Getting Away With Murder’ by the Thakur Foundation released in 2019, between 2014 and 2019, there have occurred 40 killings of journalists in India; 21 of which have been confirmed as have happened due to their journalism. Though over 30 journalists have been murdered since 2010, there have only been three convictions in the cases of J Dey (2011), Rajesh Mishra (2012), and Tarun Acharya (2014); and since 2014, there have been no convictions on attacks on investigative journalists targeted for their work. In the case of the murder of Ram Chandra Chhattrapati in 2002, justice was delivered 17 years later through the life imprisonment of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Perpetrators of these attacks have escaped with impunity due to “poor or indifferent police investigations” which disbelieve the journalist, blame the victim, and rarely agree to file FIRs. The Report studied 63 cases in the five-year period, in which FIRs were lodged in only 25, 18 of which faced no investigation beyond the initial filing. Where the journalists did file complaints without registered FIRs, counter-complaints were filed to intimidate them, and no information was provided to the victim about the case at all. According to the Report, 198 serious attacks were inflicted on journalists between 2014 to 2019 with 36 occurring solely in 2019 – with journalists gunned down, shot at by pellet guns and blinded, forced to drink urine-laced liquor or defecated upon, kicked, assaulted and chased; with petrol bombs thrown at their homes and damage caused to their vehicles. These journalists covering contentious national issues of illegal activities such as mining, sand and liquor, stone crushing, kerosene trade, land grab, water mafia, etc. were victimized by aggressive mobs, religious leaders and supporters, village officials, guerrilla groups, politicians, local mafia, police and security forces. The Report also found that female journalists faced disproportionately high rates of attacks, with the viciousness of assaults increasing for journalists covering the Sabrimala temple entry case. It referred specifically to the brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru and Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar – both of whom were stringent critics of the BJP-led Hindutva populist-nationalism, and reiterated that even these high-profile cases were tried years after they occurred, and were persecuted unsatisfactorily. During the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens in 2019-2020, the Report found that between December 11 and December 21 2019, a minimum of 14 journalists was attacked, harassed and intimidated by law-enforcement across the country; most of them Muslim. It also stated that despite these facts, “there’s little expectation of accountability or even redressal of these injustices, given the pathetic record of justice delivery of the last six years.”
Press freedom is integral to a stable, healthy and functioning democracy. A free and independent media has the capacity to act as a public watchdog reporting on the various branches of the government and their functioning, accountability and transparency as well as on policies of economic development and social issues; as a detective through long-term and in-depth investigative journalism reporting of large-scale systemic wrongdoings; as a public educator on various important issues of public interest; as an advocate for democracy and good governance through signalling how the government ought to act as a trustee of the national public (especially during elections); and as a catalyst for democracy and development as a reliable press accompanied by a responsive government can create a positive cycle that would make public political participation more meaningful. Therefore, if India is to maintain is hard-won democratic credentials, both nationally and internationally, the maintenance and support of a free press is vital.
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