The Modi government’s growing offensive against press freedom
Today is World Press Freedom Day, but in India May 3, 2022 marks the 575th day Siddique Kappan was jailed in Uttar Pradesh for an article he never even got to write about the gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras. Today is also the third month of Cashmere the imprisonment of editor Fahad Shah in Srinagar and the fourth month imprisonment of freelance journalist Sajad Gul by authorities in Jammu and Kashmir.
Kappan and Shah were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – the draconian “anti-terrorism” law. While Kappan failed to secure bail even a year and a half after his arrest, Shah was quickly arrested for a second “misdemeanor” within hours of being released on bail. To ensure he remains in jail, the J&K government – answerable to Union Home Minister Amit Shah – has now also detained him under the Public Security Act (PSA), a preventive detention law under which a “detained” person can be kept behind bars. as long as one year without charge or trial. It is also the route taken by the police to detain Sajad Gul – a telltale sign that the case against him will not withstand judicial scrutiny. The PSA also authorizes revolving door detentions: from the end of the year, the law can be imposed on the person again.
It is important to remember Kappan, Gul and Shah as they are the most visible symbols of the government’s widespread assault on press freedom in India today. Just five years ago, the greatest professional risk facing the media was the misuse of defamation as a means of harassment and intimidation. Today, however, the range of threats is far deadlier.
Under the Modi government, the ongoing attack on media freedom takes several forms:
- the arrest and imprisonment of journalists,
- filing bogus criminal charges against dozens of reporters (including The Wire and its reporters),
- the use of intrusive surveillance such as the Pegasus spyware against journalists (including those working at Thread),
- physical attacks on journalists in the fieldsometimes by officials but also by “non-state actors” whose proximity to the ruling party gives them impunity.
- bullying social media intermediaries to remove content the government (and ruling party) disapproves of,
- the ban tv channels for undisclosed – and presumably fictitious – national security reasons,
- the use of official agencies to harass the media and journalists in the name of “economic crimes”,
- unprecedented use of internet outages,
- Favoritism and vindictiveness in the allocation of government advertising, a tactic Indira Gandhi used during the emergency,
- Ad-hocism and arbitrariness in the approval process for official accreditation and foreign investment (FDI) in digital media,
- the de facto ban on visits related to current events in Kashmir by the international media and the tightening of the rules for visas for journalists in general,
- rendering the Press Council of India ineffective in failure to appoint a chair six months after the incumbent’s retirement, the administrative equivalent of Indira Gandhi’s decision in 1976 to officially abolish the PCI,
- the industrial-scale production of false information, the trolling and harassment of journalists – especially women – under the patronage of the ruling party, as narrated by ThreadTekFog’s investigation of the TekFog app,
- the introduction of new laws to censor – by executive order – digital news content via the Information Technology Rules, 2021.
Then there are the lesser sins, such as the lack of transparency and accountability in government communication, from the prime minister to the end. Narendra Modi adamantly refuses to hold a press conference in India and refuses to allow questions when his overseas hosts call such events. Requests on the right to information are blocked or rejected on the slightest pretext.
The government’s war on journalists relies on two force multipliers: the willingness of a section of the mainstream media not only to toe the official line, but also to applaud its actions, and the reluctance of the courts to quickly enforce and decisively the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of the press.
Although there are welcome exceptions, lower courts frequently accept abuse of executive power, leaving it to the upper judiciary to provide a remedy. Unfortunately, the response of high courts and even the Supreme Court to press freedom violations has not been uniform. There have been some landmark orders – the Supreme Court’s rejection of the government’s “national security” alibi in the Pegasus case is an example of this, as is the decision by the high courts of Bombay, Madras and Kerala to suspend the most objectionable sections of the IT Rules – but cases relating to the freedom of journalists to do their job without the threat of imprisonment hanging over them have not been dealt with the firmness and urgency required.
In a recent interviewthe Minister of State for Information Technology spoke about the government’s plans to amend the Information Technology Act 2000 to introduce restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press going “beyond 19(2)”, that is, restrictions more sweeping than the constitution permits the government to impose by law.
Indira Gandhi’s national emergency – which lasted 21 months – saw censorship, abolition of the Press Council of India and the arrest of journalists. Narendra Modi has criminalized journalism on a scale not seen since 1977, rendered the (now largely toothless) Press Council irrelevant through administrative means and revived the spirit of the hateful ‘Prevention of the Publication of Objectionable Articles Act, 1976’ through the promulgation of the IT Rules, 2021, by which the government arrogated to itself the right to remove digital news content which it deems objectionable.
Modi’s undeclared emergency is already in its eighth year and shows all signs of an escalation in his offensive against the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people. The time for chewed words is long gone: Indian democracy is dying in broad daylight. And yet, this death is not inevitable. The press is under siege but must find ways to stand your ground, tell the story and raise your voice in solidarity with every journalist and media house in the line of fire.