One year ago, the Narendra Modi-led BJP registered a thumping victory in the Lok Sabha elections to return to power at the Centre. One year hence, as India battles the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Modi is yet to address a press conference, making him perhaps the only PM not to do so. But there is more when it comes to the friction between this government and the news media.
‘Attacks On Journalists Escalated Since BJP Came to Power’
According to 'Getting Away with Murder’ - a study by Free Speech Collective, 198 serious attacks on journalists have been documented in the period between 2014-19, including 36 in 2019 alone. The study also states that there has not been a single conviction in attacks on journalists in India, targeted for their investigative work.
Qazi Shibli, a south Kashmir-based Journalist and editor says, “In India, since the BJP has come to power, we have seen an escalation in attacks against journalists.” Shibli was booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA) after he reported a leaked government document on additional troop buildup in Kashmir before the revocation of Article 370. He was lodged in a Bareilly Jail for nine months before being released on 25 April.
"“The legitimacy of stories by reporters have been challenged by prominent people including politicians and it has always been followed by violence. It’s like Shujaat Bukhari left his home half an hour before Iftaar with his family preparing for the meal and, the next moment, you know, his dead body reached home.”" - Qazi Shibli, Editor, KashmiriyatJournalism in Times Of COVID-19
Journalists across the world are risking their lives to gather news and information during the COVID crisis. However, in India since 25 March, when the nationwide lockdown was announced, police and authorities have questioned, filed cases or arrested at least 10 journalists for reports critical of the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Interestingly, this trend isn't just limited to states under the BJP government. Cases have been filed against journalists by the Congress government in Chattisgarh, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Shiv Sena, NCP & Congress government in Maharashtra.
In a particularly brazen case of crackdown on media freedom in Gujarat, Dhaval Patel, editor of a news website, was booked under sedition for suggesting that the BJP is contemplating a change of leadership in the state.
The Wire, co-founding editor, MK Venu says that cases of assault on media freedom have come to light from various parts of the country despite media activities being declared as essential services during the lockdown.
"“Although journalism and media activities have been declared essential services during the lockdown period, a number of cases of assault on media freedom have come to fore. The Wire itself has come under attack. Two FIRs have been filed by the UP administration against the Co-founding Editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan for very routine reporting of facts." - MK Venu, Editor - The Wire
The Wire's founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan was served a notice to appear in court by the UP Police on charges of making 'disreputable' comments against Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. This, after Varadarajan misquoted the chief minister and issued a clarification later.
Falling Press Freedom Rankings
India ranked 142 out of 180 countries on the Global Press Freedom Index released on 21 April by Reporters Without Borders. The report attributed India’s rankings to “increased pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line.”
According to the report, “There have been constant press freedom violations in India, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.”
“Well, it's very clear that the Modi government has expressed open disdain or almost a contempt for the freedom of press and for the functions of press. So it's no surprise to me at all that our rankings as far as freedom of press is concerned, continue to deteriorate,” says well-known author and journalist, Aatish Taseer.
"“One by one, they find a tailor-made solution to either cow you into silence or effectively put you out of business. You have a government that consistently seem to deny the role of press scrutiny as an important pillar of democracy.”" - Aatish Taseer, Author & Journalist
Aatish Taseer authored the controversial 'India's Divider in Chief' article on Narendra Modi that was published as Time magazine cover story ahead of Lok Sabha Elections 2019. Taseer’s Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card was later revoked by the Home Ministry in November 2019.
When Women Journalists Become The Target
Women journalist in India face severe online harassment and bullying while reporting. They often face death and rape threats and are stalked and doxxed with their personal data shared online.
Geeta Seshu, journalist and co-founder of Free Speech Collective, tells us that these are means of policing and punishing women for speaking out.
"“Women have been seeing a lot of harassment. There is documented online harassment of women journalists. The sexualised abuse, the misogyny that they face from troll armies, these are ways of policing them and punishing them for speaking out.”" - Geeta Seshu, Journalist and Co-founder - Free Speech Collective
“The other alarming trend that we are seeing or we have documented through the free speech collective or through the report we did - Getting Away With Murder, is the lodging of FIRs against women journalists and the direct physical attacks," Seshu added.
‘Self Censorship & Fear of Reprisal Is Killing Independent Media’
As journalism continues to be a risky profession in India, with the country ranking 13th on the Global Impunity Index, which lists countries where journalists are murdered and killers walk free without facing conviction, an increasing number of journalists are adopting self-censorship as a practice to tackle the crisis.
In April, three journalists from Kashmir – Masrat Zahra, Peerzada Aashiq and Gowhar Geelani – were booked under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for their reporting on Kashmir.
Responding to this, Geeta Seshu says, “There is punishment and harassment, cases against editors, FIRs lodged against journalists and complete shutdown of access to dissenting media. This culture of cracking down on dissent, on questions, it permeates to every level.”
"These are the people who do not understand the function of criticism, they do not understand the function of press scrutiny and they think that the function of the press is to be a cheerleader to power rather than hold the power to account," Aatish added.
‘They Have Polarised the Media Fraternity’
With numerous incidents of spreading fake news and communalising of issues by the mainstream media coming to fore, Shibli says that the media fraternity has been “polarised” by the government.
"“Like every section of the society, they’ve polarised the media fraternity into good and bad journalists. Media houses reporting truth based on facts are dubbed as anti-national or the bad media and the good media is the one promoted by the state.”" - Qazi Shibli, Editor - Kashmiriyat
The continued gags on dissenting media coming to fore from across the country, raise one pertinent question – how free is the press in India under Modi 2.0?
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