The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

COVID-19 and Shrinking Press Freedom in India

Amid the pandemic, India’s crackdown on press freedom continues unabated.

Bansari Kamdar
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COVID-19 and Shrinking Press Freedom in India
Credit: Flickr/ Sanyam Bahga

In a time when information is paramount and journalists are risking their lives on the frontline to share critical stories, we are also witnessing a growing global crackdown on freedom of expression.

There is a rising fear of persecution for reporters and other dissenting voices in India. In just five years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s place in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index has dropped to 142nd in 2020 from 136th in 2015. India falls behind most of its neighbors, including Myanmar (139), Afghanistan (122), Bhutan (67), Nepal (112), and Sri Lanka (127).

With no murders of journalists in 2019, in comparison to six killings in 2018, it may seem that the situation is improving. However, according to the RSF, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government is increasingly infringing on the rights of the media with British colonial-era “sedition” laws and threatening pressure and violence against reporters who do not “toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line.”

Amid a nationwide lockdown since March 24 to curb the spread of coronavirus, journalists across India are being charged with sedition and summoned to police stations for reporting on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

On May 11, 2020, Dhaval Patel, editor of the Gujarati news portal Face of Nation, was detained and booked with sedition for writing about the change in Gujarat’s political leadership by the BJP after the state’s rapid rise of coronavirus cases. Similarly, the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) writes that the Uttar Pradesh administration filed an FIR against journalist Ravindra Saxena from Today-24 on May 18 for reporting on the mismanagement and negligence at a quarantine center in Sitapur district.

In Himachal Pradesh, 10 FIR cases have been filed against at least six journalists for their reporting on India’s migrant crisis and the lack of food distribution in the area. The migrant crisis is shaping up to be as great an emergency as the pandemic. According to research by Thejesh GN, Kanika Sharma, Krushna, and Aman, at least 667 people have died as a result of the abruptly announced lockdown in India, for reasons ranging from starvation and police brutality to suicides and accidents.

The persecution of journalists is not limited to one political party; similar practices are being adopted across partisan lines. According to NewsLaundry, the Maharashtra police booked Rahul Zori, a reporter with TV9 Marathi, for reporting on irregularities in migrant relief camps in Dhule, Maharashtra.

All the while, violence against reporters has not abated. Major Singh Punjabi, a journalist with the Rozana Pehredar newspaper, accused two Punjab policemen of beating him on May 22. According to SAMDEN, the reporter was hospitalized, and the cops have been suspended.

Journalism in India remains a risky pursuit. India ranks 13th among countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2019 Global Impunity Index. It has been on the index for the last 12 years.

Women often bear the brunt of threats while reporting on the crisis. The Coalition of Women in Journalism documented 145 threats and intimidation against women journalists from January 2020 to April 2020 globally. India had the third highest cases of intimidation against female reporters.

In response to its falling press freedom index, the Indian government has set up a new Index Monitoring Cell. On the World Press Freedom Day, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted that the media in India “enjoy absolute freedom” and took a dig at the index, stating that “we will expose, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about ‘Freedom of Press’ in India.”

The BJP-led government has gone so far as to petition the Supreme Court to stop publication of any COVID-19 information that is not cleared by them. The court denied the petition but directed the media to “refer to and publish the official version of the developments.”

In another recent Supreme Court hearing, it stated that “free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to one position,” and quashed all but one FIR against the Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami. Nonetheless, it also stated that the freedom of press is not “absolute.” In April, Goswami was charged with various provisions under the Indian Penal Code, including criminal defamation and Section 153A, which  makes promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language punishable by three years. The charges stemmed from his coverage of the Palghar lynching of Hindu sadhus.

According to the RSF, a major reason for India’s low press freedom index has been the government’s shutdown of the internet in the Jammu and Kashmir after rescinding its semi-autonomy in August 2019. The International Press Institute, another journalism watchdog, recently called Kashmir one of the “world’s most repressive spots for the press.”

In April 2020, three journalists, Peerzada Ashiq, a senior reporter with The Hindu; Masrat Zahra, a freelance photojournalist; and Gowhar Geelani, a freelance columnist, author and former editor for Deutsche Welle, were charged within 48 hours for their reporting on Kashmir. The Editors Guild of India decried these actions as a “gross misuse of power,” with the only purpose of the FIRs to “strike terror into journalists.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also writes about Gautam Navlakha, a 65-year old human rights activist, veteran reporter, and former editorial consultant for Economic and Political Weekly, who was sent to an overcrowded jail in Maharashtra in April 2020 while COVID-19 cases flared across the nation. Scholars and activists have protested sending Navlakha to prison, which could become a potential COVID-19 hotspot and a “death sentence” for the senior activist with a heart condition.

Despite more than 150,000 cases of coronavirus, India has suspended daily press briefings on the pandemic since May 11, 2020, for unexplained reasons.

A New Indian Express article questioning the sudden absence of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) officials from the government press briefings and the central government’s reluctance to share data was abruptly pulled down by the site, reports Priyanka Pulla. The newspaper provided no explanation for the removal of their article titled “Centre’s COVID-19 Communication Plan: hold back data, gag agencies and scientists.”

Self-censoring and vanishing news reports are becoming the norm rather than an exception. Last year, The Caravan reported 10 other news reports critical of the BJP government, including one on India’s poor performance on the press freedom index, that were similarly retracted during Modi’s first term as prime minister.

The Uttar Pradesh government has also charged Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, with allegedly causing panic through his tweet about the UP chief minister Adityanath attending a religious event on March 25, a day after lockdown was announced. The Wire has maintained that Adityanath’s presence at the event after the lockdown announcement was a matter of public record and issued a corrigendum for a quote wrongly attributed to the chief minister.

Over 4,600 people, including former Supreme Court judges, chiefs of naval staff, academics, artists, actors, and writers, have endorsed a statement criticizing the government’s move.

“A medical emergency should not serve as the pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency,” the statement said.