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Home > 2021 > Gagged Media, Jailed Journos | John Dayal

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 29, New Delhi, July 3, 2021

Gagged Media, Jailed Journos | John Dayal

Friday 2 July 2021, by John Dayal

With an obliging police, the State is doing everything to control the media. Draconian laws are being employed to intimidate journalists not toeing the government’s line on what the media must say.

The Editors Guild of India, representing the major media organisations in the country in a statement in June 2021 said it was “shocked by the cavalier manner in which Uttar Pradesh Police is treating the mysterious death of TV journalist, Sulabh Srivastava, in Pratapgarh. Srivastava, who had been threatened by the liquor mafia for exposing their wrongdoings, had recently written a letter to the police expressing grave apprehensions for his life. Srivastava died a couple of days after he wrote the letter…” [1] The police claimed that the reporter caused his own death ramming his motorcycle into a hand-pump. He was not the only journalist to meet a violent death in these months.

This is not the only suspicious death of a newsperson in recent months. There are more such cases from UP and elsewhere. The victims have been district reporters. Statistics are hard to come by in the silence of the two waves of COVID-19, but groups such as the Editors Guild, the Delhi Union of Journalists, the Broadcasters associations, and even the Indian Catholic Press Association have attempted to collate data on government restrictions on freedom of expression, as well as coercive action on the media by state and non-state actors.

As the representative associations of media professional noted, the last several months have seen Indian media “facing increasing pressures from central and state governments who insist that they follow the official narrative regarding the administration’s handling of the pandemic.” The police and the local authorities have used laws such as sedition and UAPA to file charges and arrest journalists. This, they note, is against the spirit of the judgment given by the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Singh case and re-iterated in the recent sedition case against celebrated TV journalist Vinod Dua who was charged with sedition.

A resident of Himachal Pradesh had filed a case with the police in 2020 alleging that that Dua, in his YouTube show, had accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using "deaths and terror attacks" to get votes. The apex court threw out the complaint, holding that journalists were “entitled to the protection under the Kedar Nath Singh judgment (which defined the ambit of offence of sedition under Section 124A IPC)", the bench consisting of Justices U U Lalit and Vineet Saran observed. [2]

The judgement led the Indian Catholic Press Association (ICPA) to appeal to the Union and state governments to review all sedition charges and cases slapped on media persons and social activists in the country.

The Supreme Court’s assurance came at a time when targeting of journalists, and in particular field reporters and cartoonists critical of the government had peaked. Media persons were being targeted by friends of the ruling party on social media. The Union government even mounted pressure, especially on Twitter and Facebook platforms to remove “critical journalists”.

India’s ratings in the annual World Press Index has been continuously sliding. The 2020 index, put together by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, has placed India in 142nd position among 180 countries, below neighbours Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka [3].

The report “India: Media’s Crackdown During COVID-19 Lockdown” collated and published by the Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), states that as many as 55 journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on COVID-19 or “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020.” [4]

The highest number of attacks on media personnel during the period was reported from Uttar Pradesh (11), followed by Jammu and Kashmir (6), Himachal Pradesh (5), four each in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Maharashtra. Two cases each have been reported from Punjab, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, and one each from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Karnataka, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Telangana.

As many as 22 FIRs were filed against various journalists during the period while at least 10 were arrested “and four others were saved from being arrested by the Supreme Court” while summons or show-cause notices were issued to seven journalists during the period.

At least nine journalists were subjected to beating, including two in police custody. While, one journalist was held hostage by a village sarpanch in Odisha, the house of another journalist was allegedly demolished because of a (COVID-19 related) report he had filed which involved a ruling party MLA in Telangana. A female journalist in Arunachal Pradesh was threatened for publishing a story on a ‘wildlife hunting spike’ during the lockdown.

It was not just the government. As front-line professionals, journalists paid a heavy price for covering the ravages of COVID-19. By the end of May, 2021, at least 474 Indian journalists fell to the virus, according to a database compiled by the Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) [5].

The more recent case of government wrath was of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, who has been in custody since October 2020, under the draconian UAPA, for trying to report on the rape and death of a Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. His wife has alleged that her husband has been tied to a bed and is neither able to take food nor access toilet [6], while undergoing treatment at a Mathura Hospital for COVID-19.

Another case was of Fahad Shah, editor-in-chief of The Kashmir Walla, a Srinagar based publication, who was detailed for the third time.

In fact, Journalism in Kashmir, like the people of the Valley, continued to suffer a double whammy. The Kashmir Police issued an advisory forbidding journalists from reporting live encounters with militants saying it is “likely to incite violence” or that it can promote “anti-national sentiment”. Journalists groups condemned outright, calling it an attempt by the security forces to escape from any kind of media scrutiny about the flow of events behind the violence [7].

As it did against political opponents, the ruling dispensation used the full might of its police and quasi-police agencies to show its power to the media. The offices of NewsClick.in, a wire news agency, and the residence of its Editor and senior journalists were raided by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). The news portal had been at the frontline of reporting on the farmers’ agitation, the anti-CAA protests.

Freelance journalist Mandeep Punia who was reporting on the farm protest from Singhu border, was arrested by the police, even as the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh Police registered FIRs against senior editors and journalists, including office bearers of the Editors’ Guild, for reporting on the farmers’ protest rallies and the violence that took place in the national capital on 26 January 2021. A point that riled the police was the reportage of death of a farmer-protesters.

Senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta had non-bailable arrest warrant issued by a court in Gujarat’s Kutch district, for an article he had co-authored against the Adani group in 2017. [8]

And in Manipur, two editors of the website The Frontier Manipur faced charges of sedition and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The Manipur police arrested the Editor in Chief Sadokpam Diren, Executive Editor Paojel Chaoba and the writer of the reportedly offending article M. Joy Luwang.

In Assam, Padma Shri awardee and Editor of Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim, was dragged through a cumbersome criminal charge for a social media post in July 2020 over a skirmish between tribal and non-tribal youth in Lawsohtun at a basketball court.

And in the national capital, on 16 October 2020, Mr. Ahan Penkar of the newsmagazine The Caravan, reporting on the alleged rape and murder of a teenaged Dalit girl in North Delhi, was detained while covering as protest by the girl’s relatives at a police station. Penkar was the fourth journalist from The Caravan who has been attacked in the space of two months in the Indian capital. Dhaval Patel, editor and owner of a Gujarati news portal, ‘Face of Nation’, was booked for sedition and detained by the state police on 11 May 2021 for publishing a report suggesting the possibility of a leadership change in the state due to criticism over rising coronavirus cases.

In a joint statement the National alliance of Journalists and Delhi Union of Journalists President S. K. Pande, NAJ Secretary General N. Kondaiah, DUJ General Secretary Sujata Madhok and APWJF General Secretary G. Anjaneyulu “charged that too many such cases have been filed against journalists and other citizens, often by vindictive government authorities at district and state levels who have been called out for corruption or deficient services or discrimination. Political opponents too have been victimised through such cases.

But draconian fiats paled somewhat when news broke out a Group of Ministers (GoM) had prepared a report with an embedded toolkit to control the narrative about the government in the media. [9] The GoM set up mid 2020 comprised of five cabinet and four ministers of state, and submitted its report end of the year.

The GoM report called for, if not in so many words, an increased surveillance and targeting of writers and journalists who depart from the government’s narrative. The surgical strike in the tool kit asked for developing a “strategy to neutralise the people who are writing against the Government without facts and set false narratives/spread fake news”. As the Editors’ Guild noted. “In the absence of any clarity on what will constitute fake news and the process to be followed, such observations smack of an intention to simply muzzle any criticism of the government.” [10] Curiously, some senior journalists had been called by the committee to suggest further measures at controlling the media.

The government’s desire for an obedient media is prompted by its need to have a firm grip on the narrative on every aspect of public life. An independent media is seen as its first hurdle and is not acceptable. The government had a firm grip on the media during the first five years of its rule. However, it could not maintain this grip in the face of the stark miseries unleashed from its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regime is still smarting from its realisation that even its friendly media could not ignore the tragedy in the first phase of COVID-19 when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers began walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes after the sudden lockdown was imposed throughout the country. This inability to control the tellers of the chronical is the only explanation of its abuse of draconian laws with vengeance. Sadly, and dangerously, the police are becoming keen accomplices of the political party in power.

ENDS

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