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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 35, New Delhi, August 14, 2021

Journalists: No to Snoopgate, increasing Sedition and Defamation Charges | Press Release DUJ

Friday 13 August 2021

DELHI UNION OF JOURNALISTS (REGD.)

Flat No. 29, New Central Market, Connaught Circus, New Delhi – 110 001

Phone: 23413459, E-mail: duj.delhi[at]gmail.com

11 August, 2021

Press Release

Wearing black badges, with few ‘Stop Press Bashing’ badges too, the Delhi Union of Journalists, held a meeting at the Press Club on 7 August, 2021 in association with the club to discuss the topic : “From Defamation to Sedition to Pegasus”. The meeting is part of an ongoing programme by the National Alliance of Journalists(NAJ) and in particular of the DUJ, for the last three years to save journalism and the journalists not only from being made targets of attacks but also increasing attacks on their livelihood.

Addressing the meeting, in a succinct address, Senior Advocate and analyst Sanjay Hegde said India was now becoming one of the most unsafe countries for journalists who choose to practice independent journalism. “The modus operandi of the government has assumed a certain gradation — if you can’t shut down people with defamation then shut them down with sedition," he said.

Propaganda is the order of the day. News organisations are either co-opted, coerced or made complicit in a regime which seems to have the entire ownership of truth, he said. He pointed out that in times of deceit truth is a revolutionary act. Both journalists and lawyers have a crucial role to play in the upholding of democracy and the Constitution today, he said, observing that Mahatma Gandhi had been both a journalist and a lawyer. The Constitution had attempted to create an order of scientific temper but now blind faith rules and Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law is in jail.

Referring to Pegasus, Hegde noted that a tool meant for intelligence gathering for national security is being misused for surveillance of everyone from journalists to politicians to registrars of the Supreme Court and even the relatives of a woman clerk who complained of sexual harassment. Yet the government refuses to state clearly if it has the tool and has used it.

He said the question is whether as a society we will authorise our government to intimidate and surveill on us by invading our privacy. Defence of our privacy and democracy will require unrelenting defiance and eternal vigilance, he observed.

Summing up the discussion S.K. Pande, President of the DUJ, said we seem to be heading for something worse than the emergency when the press was silenced. This time it is an undeclared emergency .He added the attacks on the media have been multi-pronged. Media barons have used Covid as a pretext for widespread sackings. Many of those covering Covid contracted the disease, many have suffered burnout and mental trauma. About 1000 journalists have succumbed to Covid. The four labour codes have finished off the labour laws including the Working Journalists Acts and whatever job permanency was left. The provision for setting up Wage Boards has been done away with. The Press Council of India has been packed with convenient people. None of the national bodies and unions, including the DUJ which was born in the freedom struggle, have not been given representation. Infact it has been admitted in Parliament that there is no proposal to have a Media Council of India as demanded by various bodies. This was a demand which was considered actively by both Congress and BJP governments in the past and recommended by atleast three past well-known Press Council Chairmen in view of the growing wide spectrum media.

He also referred to the increasing attacks on the independent digital media including The Wire, Newsclick and Scroll, the deliberate neglect of the Urdu press and the bleeding financially with subtle terrorisation of news agencies like UNI and PTI with all the lollipops being given to ANI besides attacks on individual journalists. He called for a joint, phased programme of discussions and protests.

Senior advocate Surendra Nath, general secretary of the All India Lawyers Union, expressed solidarity with independent journalists and all those who face draconian laws like that against sedition. He said the legal definition of sedition is in contradiction of democracy. He observed that equality, tolerance and human rights are precious, inalienable rights. The tyranny of a majority becomes a roadmap to fascism, he said. He recalled that Mahatma Gandhi had called the anti-sedition S.124A the prince of the IPC in its suppression of liberty. This 1860 law which was long dormant is now being misused he said.

Jaishankar Gupta of Press Association of India said, “What we are witnessing is fascism. The regime is intolerant toward dissent.” He said it only wants journalists who will sing its praises. For those who do not kowtow there are draconian laws like UAPA, NSA and the sedition law. He said that Parliament is not functioning, the Supreme Court has raised questions about Pegasus but the government is not replying to the simple question of whether it bought Pegasus or not. He said the Pegasus issue is complicated because it links up with the Rafale deal and the French NGO Media Part’s journalists’ phones too were infiltrated by the software.

Press Club of India President Umakant Lakhera said we are witnessing serious attacks on our democracy and the media is being battered left, right and centre. It is time for journalists to show wider unity than ever before. Even privileges given to us earlier are being withdrawn he cautioned.

Senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who is among the journalists to have gone to the Supreme Court on the Pegasus affair, as his phone was targeted, said the Supreme Court has asked several questions. Firstly, it has asked why no one complained earlier, if snooping began in 2019. Thakurta said they had learnt of the infiltration only recently and that unlike the earlier clickbait kind of malware, this Pegasus is a more sophisticated zero click software which is harder to detect. He also pointed out that a case under the IT Act a case can be filed only when a person’s own body has been violated. So in this case, the avenue of redressal and legal recourse remains limited.

Thakurta noted that since NSO sells its spyware only to governments, it has to be a government agency that is doing the snooping in India. As citizens and taxpayers we have the right to ask who bought this expensive spyware, he said. “The government is not saying yes or no. It is only saying there has been no unauthorised use. Then who authorised it?” he asked.

He also pointed out that this is not an international conspiracy against India. The Pegasus investigation involves 17 prestigious media organisations such as Le Monde and the Washington Post who found a list of phone numbers of 50,000 possible targets from 40 countries. Those whose phones were targeted included six heads of governments such as Macron and Imran Khan. He said several government are investigating the issue, so why cannot there be an independent investigation in India?

Veteran journalist, Vinay Kumar said the country is paying a high price for the indifference of the middle class which seems not to care about the degeneration of all institutions including those they use such as private schools and hospitals. Despite the huge price rise there seems to be no resentment he said. Meanwhile, all institutions are apparently being manipulated and managed including the judiciary and the media, he said. He observed that it is our collective task to prop up all democratic institutions today.

Rajya Sabha MP and veteran journalist John Brittas, said the basic premise of parliamentary democracy is that the executive is answerable to Parliament. But this executive does not seem answerable. He pointed out that in 2010 a whole Parliament session had been dropped over the 2G CAG report. However, ultimately the government had agreed to a JPC. The Supreme Court had intervened later and cases had been filed against some people. Now, said Brittas, his questions on Pegasus are not being allowed and the excuse being trotted out to stop discussion on Pegasus is that the matter is sub-judice. “What is the course before us?” he asked. In the bofors case, he said 40/50 days of Parliamentary discussion had been lost. He said Pegasus infiltration was a very serious issue because after this people will be wary of talking to politicians and journalists, fearing that their phones were being tapped. A fear psychosis is being created, he said and has to be fought with journalists as the torchbearers of media freedom.

Veteran journalist and activist N.D. Jayaprakash spoke on the controversy surrounding the Index Monitoring committee set up by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in the wake of the adverse report of Reporters Sans Borders on press freedom in the country. He said P. Sainath had brought the issue to light after the committee gave its report without consulting members like him. He said nothing was known about the current status of the committee which was largely staffed by bureaucrats with a few pro-government media persons on it. An RTI has been filed on the issue and the reply is awaited. Has the committee vanished …

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) also expressed solidarity with the meeting and highlighted that their member Siddique Kappan continues to languish in jail since October 2020 when he had gone to cover the story of a dalit girl’s rape case in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. He is charged with the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Kappan has not yet been granted bail and the trial has also not started. Solidarity messages were received from the National Alliance of Journalist (NAJ) from Andhra Pradesh who announced solidarity action not only against press bashing but against saving journalism for the future.

DUJ General Secretary Sujata Madhok cited some figures on the increasing numbers of cases filed for sedition under S.124A of the IPC. She pointed out that between 2016 and 2019, the number of cases filed under Section 124-A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) increased by 160% while the rate of conviction dropped to a shocking low of 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. In total As many as 279 cases were booked and 3,762 individuals charged with sedition during the Manmohan Singh government (2010-2014). But 519 sedition cases against 7,136 individuals were booked during the Modi government (2014-2020).

Former General Secretary of Press Club Anant Bagaitkar said that we are heading for the long battle for civil liberties and the press is being targeted.

The idea of mobilisation for a Media Commission of India to look into what has done to media, but more autonomous than the first and second press commissions and with experts from the judiciary and media besides Parliamentarians was suggested by DUJ President in his concluding remarks.

Sd/- Sd/-

S.K.Pande Sujata Madhok

President General Secretary

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