Journalism in India: Don’t shoot the messenger

Journalism in India: Don’t shoot the messenger

Speaking Truth to Power

Representative image. Credit: iStock Photo

The political environment for free and independent journalism has always been challenging in India, and even more so during the ongoing socio-political crisis. The shrinking liberty of free journalism is due to unwarranted government repression, and it reflects in the fact that India dropped down two positions on the World Press Freedom Index, standing at 142 out of 180 countries, faring worse than Afghanistan. The Centre for Protection of Journalists’ 2020 Global Impunity Index lowers India’s rank to 12th position. The climate for journalism is worrying as India continues to transform into one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. The State-backed repression on investigative journalism exhibits a brazen attack on freedom of speech in the country, making it hit rock-bottom. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting dismissed the World Press Freedom Index as “an attempt to put India in a bad picture,” even as it restrained broadcast by channels critical of the government on the Delhi riots of last year

Reporters sans Frontiers calls the situation in India “alarming” and attributes the drop in position to an organised strategy of curbing dissent. The arrests of independent journalists Mandeep Punia and Siddique Kappan are examples of the government’s heavy-handedness on the fourth pillar of democracy. While one was detained while covering the farmers’ protest near Delhi, the other was imprisoned even as he was heading to Hathras, UP, to report on the recent gang-rape there. The recent spate of FIRs against six journalists, including the editors of India Today Group and Caravan magazine is another attempt to constrain critical voices.

The year 2020 witnessed widespread attacks on journalists, ranging from physical assault to false criminalisation, threats and intimidation. Journalist Neha Dixit has faced stalking, threats of rape and murder and an attempt to break into her house recently. Two senior journalists were arrested in Manipur under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, sending a signal that the acquisition and transmission of information facilitating critical scrutiny are no longer  permissible.

Amidst the nationwide lockdown, journalists, regarded as “essential workers”, were subjected to excessive State-force, making it impossible for uncomfortable reports to reach the public. At least 55 journalists faced reprisals for reporting on Covid-19 and the troubles people faced due to the sudden lockdown decision.

Sedition charges

World Press Freedom Day 2020 was themed “Journalism without Fear or Favour”. In India, fearless journalism is met with mobilisation of domestic laws to restrict and repress media independence. The government uses draconian laws, the penal code’s sedition provisions, the criminal defamation law, and laws dealing with hate speech against those who step out of the government’s line.

Section 124A of IPC, a colonial-era law used to silence nationalists then, is now commonly misused to crush civil dissent. The law’s validity was challenged and upheld, limiting its use to words that tend to create disorder or disturbance of public peace through violence. The judicial precedents make a clear distinction between disloyalty to the government established by law and strong criticism of government measures or acts. The judges were optimistic that the guidelines would keep its misuse in check, but it is being used rampantly. Last year, the editor of an online Gujarati news portal was booked for sedition for publishing an article that suggested that the Gujarat chief minister could be replaced for failing to manage the Covid-19 situation.

Article 14’s database reveals a rise in the number of sedition cases since 2014 -- a 28% increase on average in the cases filed each year during the Modi regime compared to the previous administration’s yearly average. Statistics highlight the rising number of sedition cases during and immediately after protests, indicating a clampdown on free public discussion. The State has successfully created a climate of fear amongst the media despite constitutionally available safeguards.

Judicial precedents

The High Court of Uttarakhand in 2019 quashed an FIR filed against a journalist and remarked that criticism of the government and public functionaries is not sedition and is necessary for the strengthening of democracy. The judge noted that “in a democracy, dissent is always respected; if it is suppressed under sedition laws, perhaps, it would be an attempt to make  democracy weak.”

The apex court considers freedom of the press as a foundation of all democracies. Courts have also expressed anguish over the muzzling of journalists, saying that if journalists’ voices were stifled, no one would be able to stop India from becoming a Nazi State. Despite this, there is evident reluctance to granting bail on sedition charges.

India has an international obligation to respect and protect journalists and condemn the violence against journalists under the Human Rights Council’s 2016 resolution. The paradox is that Indian officials publicly put down its media by calling them “bazaaru” and “presstitutes”. The member-states are responsible for preventing arbitrary detention, killings, threats and harassment against the journalists by ensuring accountability through impartial investigations. The United Nations’ Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists recommends national legislation on safeguarding journalists.

The Convention on the Protection of Journalists has failed to materialise. India does not have comprehensive legislation to protect the country’s journalists. The Maharashtra government introduced Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017, while the Chhattisgarh Protection of Media Persons Act is in the final draft form. However, doubts arise over these legislations’ implementation when journalists are exposed to State-sponsored sanctions.

The Journalists’ Association of Assam (JAA) and the National Union of Journalists of India (NUJI) have demanded a Journalist Protection Act to ensure journalists’ safety, highlighting that seven media houses and 837 journalists have been attacked in the last 12 years. However, the question is whether, in India’s currently polarised social and political climate, a new law will make a difference.

(Ritika Goyal is a legal researcher with the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Project; Shrutika Pandey is a Litigation Assistant with Human Rights Defenders Alert, New Delhi)