Travel ban on Aakar Patel now: Journalists, activists in India under assault
Various instances of intimidation confirm the findings released in February 2022 by the Right and Risk Analysis Group on press freedom in India
A week after journalist Rana Ayyub was stopped from flying to London, former head of Amnesty International India and journalist Aakar Patel was halted from leaving the country at the Bengaluru airport with the authorities citing a lookout circular issued against him by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
This was even after Patel had obtained his passport after a Surat court allowed him to travel to the US to deliver speeches at Michigan, Berkeley and New York University. Patel said he had no information of the lookout notice by CBI.
“The airport authorities said the lookout notice was not for the case in Surat. This was for the Amnesty case filed in 2019. I was not informed of this circular, so I had no opportunity to move the court,” explained Patel. Even when the officials in Surat gave Patel his passport last week, they did not inform him about the CBI lookout circular.
The CBI had filed a case in Chennai against Amnesty International India in 2019 after the Union home ministry alleged that it had violated the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) and the Indian Penal Code. The Enforcement Directorate began another investigation into the same incident.
The union government has made a practice of going after writers, journalists and activists. In 2015, Priya Pillai, who was with Greenpeace-India, was stopped at New Delhi airport in January 2015 and stopped from boarding a flight to London. Priya was set to speak on people-powered movements with the local communities in Mahan, Madhya Pradesh. She was informed that though she had no case against her, the government was opposed to her leaving the country. Eventually, the look-out notice was quashed by a Delhi High Court order.
On April 3, 2022, five journalists, four of whom were Muslims, were attacked in the national capital allegedly by a Hindutva mob for covering a Hindu Mahapanchayat event at Burari, which is in North Delhi. Newslaundry reporters Shivangi Saxena and Rounak Bhat, Article 14 reporter Arbab Ali, The Hindustan Gazette correspondent Meer Faisal, Mohd Meharban and Meghnad Bose of The Quint were manhandled by the mob. All the journalists accused the police of not helping them.
In Uttar Pradesh, three journalists were arrested for reporting on the leak of the Class XII English examination paper. Ajit Ojha and Digvijay Singh, who work with Amar Ujala, and Manoj Gupta were arrested along with 34 others in the case.
In Jammu and Kashmir, journalist Fahad Shah was arrested for the third time in a month in March 2022 by the Srinagar Police. This was just hours after he got bail from a Shopian court and days after securing bail from a special court. He was arrested on February 4 this year by Pulwama Police in a case filed by the Army against two news portals including ‘thekashmirwalla’ under Sections 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot) and 505 (statements conducive to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code in January last year.
Earlier, Agra-based journalist Gaurav Bansal was arrested for reporting on the movement of EVMs before counting day. He had reached a counting centre on March 8 and alleged EVMs were being replaced, but the Etmaddaula police alleged that he was ‘creating nuisance before the counting day’.
Kashmiri journalist, Asif Iqbal Naik, was booked for publishing a report on custodial torture by the police in 2018. In August 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court cancelled the FIR registered against Naik.
Journalist Tanveer Warsi, who has reported for Sahara Samay, ANI and NDTV, was arrested and spent five months in jail for reporting on mismanagement of hospitals, shortage of medicines and oxygen in Rajgarh in Madhya Pradesh. The first FIR was filed four days after Warsi’s video appeared on ANI, and after he published the photo of the leaking hospital roof.
Rajesh Chourasiya from Chhattarpur, Mahfooz Khan from Shahdol and Shubham Shrivastava from Sagar were booked in May 2021 for reporting on Covid mismanagement in various districts the Madhya Pradesh in June 2021. Of these six, only Warsi was arrested and jailed.
Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist and contributor to the Caravan magazine, and Dharmender Singh, a Delhi-based journalist who works for Online News India, were arrested for covering the farmers’ protest at Singhu border in Delhi. Singh was eventually let off, but Punia had to spend four days in jail.
Journalists Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha were arrested in Tripura on November 15, 2021, for reporting on the incidents of vandalism and attacks on mosques in Tripura. They were arrested on the basis of a first-person report that was filed against them by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad member. They were granted bail after an hour of the court hearing in Gomti.
Siddique Kappan was arrested was arrested by Uttar Pradesh Police in October 2020 and charged under the UAPA while he was on the way to report on the gangrape and murder of a Dalit woman by dominant caste men in Hathras. He is still in prison.
All these instances of intimidation confirm the findings released in February 2022 by the Right and Risk Analysis Group on press freedom in India. According to the report, at least six journalists were killed and 121 journalists and media houses were targeted in India in 2021. At least 34 faced attacks from non-state actors, mainly political party activists, mafia and online trolls. Eight female journalists faced arrest, summon, first information reports (FIRs) and sexual harassment.
The think tank observed that the highest number of journalists and media houses targeted was in Jammu & Kashmir (25), followed by Uttar Pradesh (23), Madhya Pradesh (16), and Tripura (15). There were eight cases in Delhi, six in Bihar, five in Assam, four each in Haryana and Maharashtra, three each in Goa and Manipur, two each in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, and one each in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Kerala.
The laws that were mostly invoked against the journalists and media houses during 2021 included Section 124A (sedition), Section 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), Section 153A (promoting enmity between religious groups), Section 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) defamation, as well under the Unlawful Atrocities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the Information and Technology Act including Section 66A and Section 66F, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 etc.