New hit on Indian independent media and free press

The press freedom crisis in India is not new​. But with Narendra Modi’s government facing heat over the ongoing farmers’ protest, his regime has renewed its repression of dissenting voices.

India’s federal economic intelligence agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), has swept through the Delhi office of NewsClick, an independent media portal that has been outspokenly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The authorities also raided the residences of several journalists associated with the digital news portal, in what is seen as a fresh assault on the free press by an increasingly authoritarian right-wing government.

The agency was purportedly investigating an alleged money laundering case pertaining to foreign funding that the news organisation received from allegedly “dubious companies” abroad. The ED officials began their search of the NewsClick office in South Delhi’s Saidulajab area at around 10am on Tuesday 9 February, while also carrying out searches at the residences of editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha and one of the publication’s editors, Pranjal.

NewsClick has been covering extensively the farmers’ protest in the country, which has rattled the Modi government. The state is accused of introducing pro-corporate agriculture laws at the expense of impoverished and marginalised farmers.

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“There’s been a search going on since morning, also at some of our houses. We are cooperating and will continue to cooperate. They are searching through the documents and have given us a notice,” Pranjal has been quoted as saying. Senior journalist Abhisar Sharma, who hosts two YouTube programmes for NewsClick, wrote on Twitter that raids were being conducted at the houses of the shareholders and directors of the news website.

Many Indian journalists took to social media to denounce the raid, saying it was being done in the spirit of revenge and an attempt to harass journalists who do not toe the official line. “This government doesn’t even care anymore to make its vendetta look less obvious,” tweeted journalist Rohini Singh.

“Sedition cases, UAPA, FIRs for 153, 505, etc, frivolous defamation suits and now ED raids, this is how the government handles India’s independent media. @newsclickin is the latest target,” wrote senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, referring to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the police’s first information report under Section 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and Section 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.

Journalist Rishav Raj Singh tweeted: “Modi government’s assault on media continues with ED raid on @newsclickin office, homes of owner Prabir Purkayastha and editor Pranjal, in Delhi. NewsClick was one of the last bastions of critical reporting on the government’s policies.”

A relentless assault

With the farmers’ protest in India gaining international attention, there has been a spike in the assault on media organisations and journalists reporting on the issue. Delhi police picked up freelance journalist Mandeep Punia, a contributor to The Caravan magazine and Junputh news website, and Dharmendra Singh, a reporter with the YouTube news channel Online News India, from the farmers’ protest site at the Singhu border between Haryana and Delhi on 30 January. A video of the moment Punia was detained, which circulated on social media, shows the police violently manhandling him hours after he posted a video on Facebook narrating the protest events held by farmers over increasing privatisation in farming.

Authorities in various Indian states, especially those ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have launched investigations and filed criminal charges – including sedition and making statements the state says make national integration difficult – against at least eight journalists over their coverage of allegations that the Delhi police killed a protesting farmer on 26 January, which the police deny. 

The BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh police opened a separate investigation on 30 January into Delhi-based independent news website The Wire, its editor Siddharth Varadarajan and reporter Ismat Ara for their coverage relating to the killing of a farmer. They reported that the family of the slain protester refused to accept the Delhi police’s claim that he was not shot to death.

“We are extremely alarmed by the authorities’ treatment of journalists and news organisations reporting on the farmers’ protests in India, which is an issue of national importance,” said Aliya Iftikhar, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Asia researcher on the cases filed against Indian journalists. The Editors Guild of India also condemned the filing of an FIR against journalists, describing it as a way to intimidate and harass the media. The guild has said that it is of greater concern to introduce 10 clauses related to treason, disturbing communal harmony and hurting religious sentiments of the people.

The Hindu-nationalist government has managed to sway most of the country’s news media by cultivating journalists that portray Modi as the nation’s strongman and saviour. Media outlets and journalists who are close to or tied to the Modi government are known as the Godi Media. Hindi news anchor Ravish Kumar coined the term to refer to media organisations that are the “lapdogs” of the Modi-led BJP government and it is now commonly used to refer to news outlets and journalists who are perceived as mouthpieces of the ruling party.

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The BJP government has also been selective in its allocation of television licences, effectively excluding unfriendly outlets from the airwaves. Those in the media industry that have been outwardly critical of the BJP government have been pressured through reprimanding editors, cutting off advertising and tax investigations. The India Today Group recently took its news anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai, off the air for two weeks and deducted a month’s pay as “disciplinary action” for saying the farmer who died in the Delhi protests had been “shot”.

Female journalists, especially those critical of the BJP government, face vicious abuse online, in-person stalking, and death and rape threats from Modi supporters. In January, the Rajasthan state police arrested a 26-year-old law student associated with BJP student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad for sending death and rape threats to senior journalist Rohini Singh over her reporting of the farmers’ rally.

Delhi-based freelance journalist Neha Dixit, who has covered politics, gender and social justice issues for various news outlets, said she has been “stalked, openly threatened with rape and murder, viciously trolled”. An attempt was made to break into her apartment following months of threatening phone calls that included death threats and references to her journalism.

“The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has supported campaigns to discourage speech that is ‘anti-national’, and government-aligned thugs have raided critical journalists’ homes and offices,” said Sarah Repucci, the senior director for research and analysis at Freedom House, in her 2019 report on press freedom in India.

Death of the free press?

According to a study, Behind Bars: Arrest and Detention of Journalists in India 2010-20, by Geeta Seshu, as many as 67 journalists were arrested and nearly 200 physically attacked in 2020.

“A sharp rise in criminal cases lodged against journalists in India for their work, with a majority of cases in BJP-ruled states, has contributed to the deterioration in the climate for free speech in India,” the report says. The police arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices to 154 journalists for their professional work between 2010 and 2020, and a little over 40% of these instances were in 2020.

Another study, Getting Away With Murder, says there were 40 killings of journalists between 2014 and 2019. “Of these, 21 have been confirmed as related to their journalism.” Journalists have been arrested on “terror” and “conspiracy” charges.

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Kerala-based freelance journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested in October last year under the UAPA for allegedly attempting to create social tension. He was arrested on his way to the Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh to report on the death of a 19-year-old Dalit girl. Another journalist, Prashant Rahi, has been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for charges related to unlawful activities, waging war against the state and sedition.

The World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranked India at 142 among 180 countries. India was ranked 122 in 2010 and its ranking has been declining steadily since then. 

“The coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks against journalists who dare to speak or write about subjects that annoy Hindutva followers are alarming and include calls for the journalists concerned to be murdered,” said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based group that advocates for press freedom worldwide and compiles the ranking each year. “Those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate.”

Muzzling Kashmir’s press

The RSF said the situation in the disputed Kashmir region affected India’s score heavily. The Indian government blocked fixed-line and mobile internet connections for several months after rescinding the state’s autonomy, making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover what was happening in what has become a vast open prison.

Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan, who wrote about politics and conflict for the Kashmir Narrator magazine, has been detained since August 2018 for his alleged complicity in “harbouring terrorists”. His parents and colleagues say his stories about militant Burhan Wani caught the attention of the police. The American National Press Club gave Sultan the Press Freedom Award in 2019.

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India’s National Investigation Agency raided the offices of the Greater Kashmir local newspaper and the residence of AFP news agency journalist Parvaiz Bukhari last year. And state authorities sealed the offices of the oldest English daily in the region, the Kashmir Times, for its critical reportage.

Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra and columnist Gowhar Geelani were charged in April last year under the anti-terror law for “indulging in unlawful activities” through posts on social media. Journalist Auqib Javeed was allegedly slapped at a police station in September after being summoned for writing a story about the cyber cell of the police intimidating Twitter users. The police have beaten other journalists while they are on reporting assignments, and confiscated their phones and cameras.

The news editor of The Kashmiriyat website, Qazi Shibli, was arrested in August 2019 for tweets in which he posted an official order regarding the deployment of additional paramilitary troopers across Jammu and Kashmir. Ghulam Jeelani Qadri, a journalist and the publisher of Urdu-language newspaper Daily Afaaq from Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, was arrested in June 2019 on charges under the now lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985.

Disclosure: New Frame collaborates with a number of progressive publications in South Africa and abroad including NewsClick.

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