After India was reported to have slipped again this year by two ranks to 138th in World Press Freedom Index, just one rank ahead of Pakistan which stands at a consistent 139, another report published by The Hoot on World Press Freedom Day has claimed that media freedom continued to deteriorate in the first quarter of 2018 in India.
Recently, Reuters had reported how Indian journalists are intimidated and ostracised if they criticise Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “At least three senior editors have left their jobs at various influential media outlets in the past six months after publishing reports that angered the government or supporters of Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP, according to colleagues,” Reuters reported.
The first quarter of 2018, according to The Hoot report, has seen three killings and 13 attacks on journalists, defamation cases that came to trial, a sedition case against a journalist and a clear push by both state and central government and the judiciary, through regulatory policy as well as judicial orders, to curb free speech. Besides, it said that there were also around 50 instances of censorship, and more than 20 instances of suspension of Internet services, as well as the take down of online content.
The investigative report on state of media freedom from January 1 to April 30, 2018, reveals that a range of actors, from politicians, businesspersons, members of Hindu right wing organisations, the police and paramilitary forces, government agencies like the film certification board, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry, different state governments, lawyers and even media organisations, have acted to undermine freedom of expression.
“In two separate incidents, three journalists were killed when they were mowed down by vehicles. On March 26, two Dainik Bhaskar journalists, Navin Nishchal and Vijay Singh, were killed when their bike was hit by an SUV in Bhojpur, near Patna, Bihar. Police said the vehicle was driven by a villager leader Mohammad Harsu. He was arrested. Initial reports said that a heated argument between Harsu, husband of a former panchayat mukhia, and the reporters over a news report had preceded the accident. However, the investigation is not complete,” the report said, adding, “a day later, a television reporter Sandeep Sharma was mowed down by a truck in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh. Sharma, who had done a sting operation on a sand mining mafia in Bhind, had told police that he had received threats to his life. The driver, Ranvir Singh, was arrested.”
In five of the 13 assault cases, the report said, there were targeted attacks against journalists investigating or writing about an issue. “In at least ten instances, the perpetrators were either members of Hindu right-wing organisations or the police. An unidentified assailant hurled a petrol bomb at the residence of Shillong Times editor, Patricia Mukhim. The latter said that she was targeted for a range of writings about issues that troubled society. Her most recent articles criticized rampant and illegal mining in Meghalaya.”
Claiming that perpetrators of other targeted attacks included the timber mafia, it said that “Mob violence was sponsored by party workers of both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress, Hindu extremists and the police. In one instance, the Delhi police molested a woman journalist covering a student protest. They later apologised, stating that they mistook her for a student!”
Journalists were at the receiving end of threats from those identified as members of Hindu right wing organisations in three out of five instances, according to the report. In another, it said, a television journalist received death threats from unidentified persons following the channel’s coverage of the Kasganj violence. In one instance, personnel of the CRPF accosted a tribal journalist in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, the report added.
“In serious cases of online harassment, intimidation and death threats, journalists were trolled and their personal details shared on social media. A woman journalist found that her Twitter account was compromised by fake messages and morphed pictures were circulated. Journalists filed police complaints but no arrests have been made.”
“While journalists in the field were subjected to mob attacks, others were picked up by police when they went to cover protests, as in the case of two journalists from Kerala reporting on a 'caste' wall in a village. While restrictions on foreign media continued with the denial of visas to Australian journalists who had earlier done a story related to Gautam Adani, two foreign journalists were detained by Kerala police for covering a Valentines' Day celebration in a college,”the report stated. It also quoted other instances of arrests and detentions were for social media posts that satirized or were critical of politicians and political leaders.
The report further stated that on April 30, journalist Kamal Shukla was charged with sedition by the Katwali police station in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district for sharing a cartoon on social media on the rape of a minor girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir, allegedly lampooning the country’s judiciary and government on Facebook.
Shukla, it stated, is editor of Bhumkaal Samachar and active in highlighting fake encounters in the area. Shukla is also head of the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, which has campaigned for a law to protect journalists.
Proceedings continued in five cases of defamation even as gags on the publication of the news reports were lifted in two cases—that of Jay Amit Shah against The Wire and that of Arindam Chaudhari against The Caravan magazine, according to the report. “In the case of Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari against Manushi editor and commentator Madhu Kishwar, the case went to trial.”
Amidst these attacks, the report said, the Union and state governments announced policies that would curb media freedom. “The most active censoring agency was clearly the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), which announced several policy measures (and rolled back only one) to monitor the content of print, broadcast and online media,” it read, adding that the ministry in January, announced that it had widened the ambit of district monitoring committees to cover the monitoring of content of private FM channels and Community Radio Stations in addition to TV channels.
“In April, the I&B Ministry announced fresh guidelines for penal action against accredited journalists who spread fake news but this sparked a furore and was withdrawn within 24 hours. However, it was followed up with the setting up of a committee comprising bureaucrats and members of the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Standards Authority to regulate online content.”
“Reports that the Ministry planned to radio-tag journalists who visited government offices were denied by the Ministry, but the news website which reported this stood by its report.”
The report also cited at least 50 instances of censorship of news, broadcast, online media and films: “There were more than nine instances of news being censored, including curbs on news-gathering itself by various state governments and the Centre. These included restrictions on the movement of journalists in government offices and the legislative assemblies, threats of penal action for news that allegedly contained ‘harsh words’ and even ostensible guidelines from the National Investigation Authority on the duties of a journalist!”
“More than 20 films ran into trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) while news was censored nine times,”it said and added: “Both feature films and documentaries continued to languish between the CBFC, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and the courts.”
Even court orders certifying films for commercial release and a name change did not ensure safe passage, as in the case of Padmavat, where members of the Rajput Karni Sena managed to get the governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat to ban the film in these states. The producer of the film Unfreedom chose to exhibit his film on an online video streaming platform to circumvent the censorship when his film was denied a certificate by the CBFC.
Among other incidents of censorship, the report cited that content allegedly satirizing the speech of the son of Reliance Industries Chairperson Mukesh Ambani was taken down from several online news sites.
Describing it as a set-back to the media freedom, the report said that an order by the NBSA to Zee Television to apologise for, and take down, a video of a programme calling scientist and poet Gauhar Raza anti-national has not been complied with, marking yet another setback to media freedom.
While the Bombay High Court lifted the gag on media coverage of the Sohrabuddin alleged fake encounter trial, the report said the Delhi High Court imposed a ban on media coverage of the bribery case of former district judge IM Quddussi.
“The Delhi High Court also took up suo moto notice of the disclosure of the identity of child victims of sexual assault by media houses, imposed a ₹1 lakh penalty on 13 prominent media houses, and issued notices to other websites,” it stated, adding that “in the wake of the Loya judgement, though not expressly stated as such, the Supreme Court allowed a writ seeking contempt of court proceedings against comments or opinions expressed in the media allegedly critical of its judgements.”