Excerpts from “The India Freedom Report: January 2016-April 2017” prepared by The Hoot:
Over the last 16 months, issues of press freedom, freedom of expression, online freedom and personal freedoms have come together to produce an overall sense of shrinking liberty not experienced in recent years. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2017 it becomes important to view the level of press freedom in India in the wider context of societal freedom. The press cannot be truly free when facilitating freedoms such as the Right to Information and the Right to Internet, and the freedom of expression of the creative community, are shrinking.
Journalists under attack
In the period being reported on, 54 attacks on journalists in India were reported in the media, according to the Hoot’s compilation. The actual number will certainly be bigger, because last week Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir said during question hour in the Lok Sabha that 142 attacks on journalists took place between 2014-15. Though seven journalists were killed, reasonable evidence of their journalism being the motive for the murder is available only in one case.
The stories behind each of the attacks reveal a clear and persistent pattern. Investigative reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous. Journalists who venture out into the field to investigate any story, be it sand mining, stone quarrying, illegal construction, police brutality, medical negligence, an eviction drive, election campaigns, or civic administration corruption, are under attack. Leave alone going out into the field, those who host chat shows in the relative safety of a television studio or voice opinions on social media networks are also subjected to menacing threats, stalking and doxing.
The perpetrators, as the narratives of these cases clearly indicate, are politicians, vigilante groups, police and security forces, lawyers (apart from the Patiala House court incident in Delhi in the wake of the JNU protests, there were a spate of attacks by lawyers in Kerala), jittery Bollywood heroes and, increasingly, mafias or criminal gangs that operate in illegal trades and mining, often under the protection of local politicians and with the knowledge of local law enforcing agencies. Hence, even with clear accusations of the identities of the perpetrators, they get away scot-free. The data with “The Hoot” shows that law-makers and law-enforcers are the prime culprits in the attacks and threats on the media.
- Governments at various levels attempt censorship, so do private sector media owners. In the period under review there were a few striking examples of media censorship, of holding back news, and of self-censorship.
- In June 2016 the Andhra Pradesh government got cable operators across the state to block Sakshi News and No 1 news channels, on account of their coverage of the Kapu agitation. The leader of the numerically dominant Kapus, Mudragada Padmanabham, a former minister, started an indefinite fast in support of his demands, triggering a tense situation in coastal AP. Sakshi TV channel, owned by Jagan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party, lapped up these developments whereas other media houses reacted very cautiously. Then suddenly Sakshi suddenly went off the air. The Sakshi Media Group said their channel was blocked in the state.
- After the killing of Burhan Wani, the Kashmir media experienced censorship and harassment. In July the offices of the two largest newspapers were raided, their copies seized, and their printing presses closed down.
- In August a criminal complaint for inciting hate against different ethnic groups was lodged against independent Indian journalist, Neha Dixit, as well as Indranil Roy and Krishna Prasad, the publisher and editor of Outlook magazine for the journalistic exposé Operation #BabyLift, they had published in Outlook magazine on July 29, 2016. The complainants were an assistant solicitor general of the government of India at the Gauhati High Court, and a spokesman for the BJP.
- In October the Kashmir Reader which did a lot of reporting from the ground found itself banned for a period which finally extended to three months. Its editor described here why it incurred the displeasure of the state.
- In November a ban was imposed on NDTV India by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for a 24 hour period for its Pathankot coverage which is supposed to have revealed strategic information about the operation. The channel moved the Supreme Court against the ban. The Ministry put the ban on hold.
- When Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram passed away in December confirmation of the news was suppressed for seven hours by the hospital authorities, though TV channels were reporting her death from fairly early in the evening.
- In March 2017 Member of Parliament and businessman Rajeev Chandrasekhar got a Bangalore court to issue an ex-parte injunction to “The Wire” to take down two articles about him. This was curious because the website was not the first to point a finger at him for attempting to align the media he owns with the political ideology he supports. Nor was it the first to describe his military-related business interests, even as his public activism has centered on the armed forces.
On October 6 NDTV’s editorial director Sonia Singh sent an email to staff laying out how discussions and coverage of the surgical strike should be done. As “The Wire” reported Singh said that it had been decided across the NDTV network that it would not give space “to the political bickering that has broken out on the surgical strikes…..no debates, no airtime of my strikes vs yours, give proof etc…whether it is opposition or the govt….only the army…..to explain this.”
Under the title India Above Politics, Singh’s email also laid out the menu for the 9 PM news of 6 October, saying “national security cannot be compromised by politics”. An interview done by its anchor Barkha Dutt with Congress leader P. Chidambaram was dropped from the evening news.
Almost all cases of digital censorship recorded in the period under review concerned Facebook posts or likes and shares by citizens. Only case involved journalists in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Following the announcement of demonetisation a district collector in Madhya Pradesh saw fit to impose restrictions on “misleading” posts on social media relating to demonetisation. The “censors” were police, trolls, and right wing Hindu groups who lodged complaints with the police.
- In August 2016 Tauseef Ahmed Bhat was charged with sedition by Chhattisgarh police for “liking and sharing” anti-India posts on Facebook. He was granted bail only three months later on grounds of freedom of expression. (For arguments on his bail application see section on Free Speech in the Courts).
- In November 2016 the “Hindustan Times” reported that the cyber cell of the Madhya Pradesh police had arrested Abhishek Mishra, a 19-year-old engineering student, for his tweets criticising demonetisation and allegedly because he had made “offensive” posts against chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He was arrested on November 12 under Section 469 of Indian Penal Code and Section 66C of the Information Technology Act, 2000. His laptop and mobile phone were seized and the controversial tweets deleted.
- Also in November 2016, in the wake of demonetization, the Indore District Collector passed an order imposing restrictions on “misleading and objectionable” posts on social media related to demonetisation. P Narhari, in his order, had invoked Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure making such posts or even sharing them on social media platforms a criminal offence in the district. The Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi sent a legal notice asking him to withdraw the order.
In December 2016 Malayalam writer and theatre activist Kamal C Chavara taken into custody in Kerala for allegedly ‘insulting’ the national anthem He was arrested from Kozhikode after a case was registered against him at the Karunagalapalli Police station. He was charged under Section 124 (A) of IPC (sedition). The police said the case was lodged following a complaint by the Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of BJP, in which the organisation alleged that one of his recent Facebook post s “was in the tone of insulting the national anthem.”
- In January 2017 the young Kashmiri star of the film Dangal, Zaira Wasim, faced a troll campaign and death threats online for meeting the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. She posted an apology on her Facebook account without saying what it was for, deleted it, and posted another apology which she also deleted.
- In February 2017 in the course of the clashes at Ramjas College in Delhi 20-year-old student Gurmehar Kaur’s message on social media against the violence resulted in her being ferociously trolled and receiving rape threats. She was also criticized by ministers in the central government. Finally she deleted the post.
- In March 2017 police complaints were filed in cities across the country against a man after a vulgar cartoon on Prime Minister Narendra Modi was uploaded on his Twitter handle. IP Singh, a BJP leader from Lucknow and a former Uttar Pradesh minister, said the cartoon was uploaded on Twitter and retweeted by at least 292 people. He said he decided to filed an FIR after reading the response of several women and girls, who demanded immediate police action against him.
- Also in March Bengaluru Police lodged a criminal case against a woman for making “objectionable posts” on her Facebook page allegedly depicting Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in “poor light,” PTI reported. The case was based on an FIR filed against a woman acting on the complaint of BJP Yuva Morcha members, the police said.
- In April 2017 an FIR was filed against two Chhattisgarh journalists for Facebook post about the former IG’s meeting with Maoists. The message was also shared through WhatsApp about interactions between the former Inspector General SRP Kalluri and Maoist fighters. Kamal Shukla and Prabhat Singh were charged with defamation, insult to provoke breach of peace, public mischief and disturbing religious enmity.
Download the full report HERE