On World Press Freedom Day, journalists express determination not to be cowed by State's intimidatory tactics

"Media is fourth pillar of democracy and information is power. To deny it renders the citizens powerless, as it is an attempt to generate propaganda," said Patricia Mukhim, Editor of Shillong Times

Representative Photo
Representative Photo

Neeta Kolhatkar

Among the working journalists facing sedition and other serious criminal charges are those from Kashmir and the North East, who recently voiced their professional concerns and lamented the lack of a strong, non-partisan body of journalists to support them.

In February this year, Fahad Shah, 33, editor of a local news portal, The Kashmir Walla, was arrested by police in Kashmir, under the stringent 'anti-terror' law and sedition. He has been accused of glorifying terrorism and spreading fake news.

The crackdown on Kashmiri press continues even as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government scrapped Jammu & Kashmir's special status in 2019. Prior to his arrest, Sajad Gul, a trainee reporter in Fahad's team too was arrested for his social media posts.

Aasif Sultan was granted bail by the courts in early April this year after being held in jail on charges of aiding militants. He was in jail for nearly four years, awaiting trial.

Same is the story in North East. Kishorchandra Wangkhem, who previously worked for a television channel and now works as a freelancer, was arrested in 2018 and 2021 under charges like National Security Act and sedition twice for his social media posts.

In one post, he questioned the efficacy of cow urine as a cure for Covid after a BJP leader in Manjur who promoted it eventually succumbed to the virus.

Kishorchandra was, in fact ,released only after Erendro Leichombam, a political activist from the state who was arrested on the same charge, moved the Supreme Court which ordered his released.

Kishorchandra had previously ranted on Facebook against the celebration of Rani Laxmibai Jayanti by the Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who was previously a journalist. Manipuris, like many ethnic communities and tribes in the North East, have their own indigenous ethnic identity and they are opposed to the forced assimilation with Hindus or 'majoritarianism' as Kishorchandra calls it.

Kishorchandra was first arrested on November 27, 2018 for posting a video. He was released by court which found the video uncouth and vulgar and connoted it as “a mere expression of opinion against the public conduct of a public figure in a street language” which did not call for severe charges.

However, before he could step out of jail, he was arrested under the draconian NSA for the same video post.

The Advisory Board on National Security Act (NSA) approved his detention under the law for the period of 12 months. He was also charged under sections 124-A/294/500 IPC, one of which relates to sedition.

Currently, these journalists are battling on individual levels as there is a vacuum even on the national front, with no strong body taking up the cause of journalists. This came across as of particular concern on World Press Freedom Day.

The Press Council of India (PCI), as its former chairman Paranjoy Guha Thakurta said, "is a toothless tiger that cannot even growl or whimper to save anybody".

Being a quasi-judicial body, it cannot take any punitive action. Sadly, the PCI still does not have an appointed chairperson.

Thakurta himself was issued a non-bailable warrant by a Gujarat court in January 2021.

Concerns have been aired the world over regarding the dwindling freedom of the press in India. Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) has rated India at 150, down by eight notches, from 142 last year.

Cases against working journalists are being increasingly filed by either the state governments or the Union government in a bid to intimidate them.

At a gathering held to mark World Press Freedom Day, three journalists from Manipur shared their experiences of facing charges under NSA.

"I am more resilient and confident to fight now than before because I know the government is trying to instill fear. I am more careful now, but I will fight against the State in court," said Kishorchandra.

The fact is that a powerful working media represents a robust democracy. Sadly, in the last seven years, this fourth pillar of democracy has been dented as the number of journalists being arrested is increasing every year.

In January this year alone, five journalists were arrested, three of them from Manipur.

Senior journalists say arresting the communicator only renders citizens powerless.

"Media is the fourth pillar of democracy and information is power. To deny it renders the citizens powerless, as it is an attempt to generate propaganda," said Patricia Mukhim, Editor of Shillong Times.

She and Kashmir Times’ Anuradha Bhasin have moved the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The final order is expected this month.

The director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, Suhas Chakma urged journalists to use the option of approaching the National Human Rights Commission. He cited examples of taking up cases of journalists like that of Kishor and other activists.

"Even the UN Special Rapporteur takes attacks on journalists seriously. Journalists need to approach bodies like NHRC. It is not easy to secure intervention, but we are trying. We have filed 15 cases of attacks on journalists and demanded compensation," Suhas added.

Hopefully, the initiative will gather momentum and journalists under attack will have proper recourse to address such grievances. The intervention of international bodies may also make governments think twice about taking arbitrary action against journalists.

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Published: 05 May 2022, 7:37 PM