In India, Democracy May Die In Darkness

In India, Democracy May Die In Darkness

On this National Press Day, it is high time that we introspect the dire state of press freedom in India.

It's co-incidentally ironic that I have to pen down this piece on the National Press Day, just a day after my colleagues working for HW News Network, had been arrested and then released on bail. The two women reporters-- Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha-- were visiting Tripura to report on the communal violence that broke out in the North-Eastern state in the latter half of October month.

FIR for reporting the truth

A few days into their field visits to the mosques that were targeted during the violence, and a couple of reports narrating what transpired on the ground, the Tripura police booked the two on the complaint of an individual linked to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu right-wing organisation accused of orchestrating the violence in Tripura after their rallies.

In the FIR registered at Fatikroy Police Station of Tripura, the two HW News Network journalists were booked under sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153A (promoting enmity between two groups on the ground of religion), and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) of the Indian Penal Code.

https://twitter.com/HWNewsEnglish/status/1460124217018515459?t=I5ntditac14cTBKhsOrERA&s=19

HW News Network had dubbed their arrests as harassment and targeting of the press, as part of the Tripura Police and the government’s attempts to prevent journalists from reporting the facts.

Granting them bail on Monday, a Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Gomati district said that while the offences are “serious in nature”, from the evidence on record, it appears that it is not necessary to detain the young journalists in police custody. Doing so, the court said, “would be extreme curtailment of personal liberty”.

Though Samriddhi and Swarna walk away without having to spend any jail time, they would still remain accused in the case and have to appear for questioning if asked by the Tripura police.

Samriddhi Sakunia (left) and Swarna Jha (right) were reporting on the recent Tripura violence for HW News Network.

Though not all journalists in India are lucky enough to get bail in such a fast-tracked manner. Let alone bail, not many are even lucky to survive after reporting the truth.

Bihar Horror

When the two HW News Network journalists were arrested by Tripura police, another horrific news was coming in from the Eastern state of Bihar.

The charred body of a journalist was found in a village near Bihar's Madhubani district, nearly four days after he was abducted. Buddhinath Jha, also known as Avinash Jha, was working with a local Hindi news portal, BNN News Benipatti, and had reported extensively on illegal medical clinics that were operating in his village. It was due to his reporting that some clinics were shut down by the authorities, while some had to pay hefty fines. According to reports, Jha had received multiple threats to his life for his reporting before he was abducted.

The Bihar police, however, very unsurprisingly claimed that Jha was murdered because of a love affair gone wrong. A woman and five others have been arrested in connection with the case, Madhubani SP Dr Satyaprakash said. Media reports suggesting that the victim was burned to death were not corroborated by the police.

Buddhinath Jha, alias Avinash Jha, was exposing nexus of fake medical clinics.

A Times of India report states that Jha was abducted by four men from the market area near his house. In the FIR, the victim's brother Chandra Shekhar said he suspected Jha was kidnapped by the owners of the healthcare establishments that he had exposed.

In many other cases, even if journalists are lucky enough to survive the brunt of reporting against the powerful and do not have to pay the price of speaking the truth with their lives, they are instead booked under stringent laws, sometimes anti-terror laws, that keep them incarcerated without any trial.

The incarcerated press

In a fitting confirmation of continuously deteriorating condition of press freedom, a study at the start of this year found that 154 journalists were arrested, detained or interrogated between 2010 and 2020 in India, and 40% of these cases were reported in 2020 alone. Called ‘Behind Bars: Arrest and Detention of Journalists in India 2010-20’, the study suggested that from being booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), ‘terror’ related charges and sedition have also been increasingly used against mediapersons.

HW News Networks' Vinod Dua was booked in the past under the serious charge of sedition, a British-era law that many strongly believe should be scrapped in a modern democracy. The Apex court later quashed the case against Mr Dua and said that the free speech of a journalist should be protected from charges of sedition.

A sedition case was registered against senior journalist Vinod Dua over one of the episodes of his show on HW News Network.

Kerala-based journalist Siddique Kappan has been lodged in Uttar Pradesh's Mathura jail for over one year under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror law. Kappan along with his other colleagues had gone to cover the Hathras horror of the alleged gangrape, and murder of the 19-year-old Dalit woman that had made headlines all around the world. However, the UP police picked him and three others on the charges of hatching a conspiracy of going to Hathras “under the garb of journalism with a very determined design to create a caste divide and disturb law and order situation.”

Manipur-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was charged under the National Security Act (NSA). This act empowers the Central Government and State Governments to detain a person to prevent him/her from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of India, the relations of India with foreign countries, the maintenance of public order, or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community it is necessary so to do. However, Mr Wangkhem was arrested under the NSA for commenting on social media that cow dung and cow urine don’t cure COVID-19.

Press freedom in peril

In the last few years, Hundreds of journalists have faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties, and threats for reportage on issues of local or national importance.

For the last two years, reporters Without Borders (RSF) has listed India under countries considered “bad” for journalism and among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. For the second successive year, India has ranked 142 among 180 countries on the press freedom index released by the RSF.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the list of 37 heads of state or government that the RSF has categorised as ‘predators of press freedom’.

On this National Press Day, it is high time that we introspect the dire state of press freedom in India. While legacy media and big media houses are often accused of siding with the ruling dispensation in the country and tend to tone down news items that seek accountability from the government, it's small independent journalists and digital portals that have brought fore the news critical of the government and its actions. However, these journalists and portals continue to face the ire of the establishment and its agencies for their critical reporting.

The majority of the independent web portals, bringing factual news from India, face cash-crunch. The digital space, as predicted a decade back, has not seen a meteoric rise in the context of news media. Television continues to be a main source of information for the majority of Indians. The television media, bowing down to the powers that shall not be named, shifts the onus of reporting news that matters on digital and small independent platforms. However, with agencies hounding the platforms, with their journalists being booked under serious and anti-terror laws, the prospects of such a section of media existing for much longer seem fickle.

The continuous onslaught on journalism in India portrays a very dark picture of the future for the Indian democracy. As the flow of information is disrupted and more and more journalists and platforms quit the space fearing persecution by the state, I fear the Washington Post's official slogan may come true in India: Democracy Dies In Darkness


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