Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.
On June 8, Prashant Kanojia, an independent journalist in India, was on his way home from grocery shopping when he was stopped and detained by plainclothes officers, allegedly without a warrant. He spent three days in jail before being released on orders of the Indian Supreme Court, which declared that the “liberty of [a] citizen is sacrosanct, and non-negotiable.”
And why was Kanojia detained? For posting a video on Twitter mocking the chief minister of the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath.
Kanojia was accused of defamation for sharing a video of a woman who claimed to be in love with Adityanath, a monk and Hindu nationalist. Kanojia was one of four journalists arrested between June 6 and June 8. Two of them — Ishita Singh, head of the news channel Nation Live, and one of the channel’s editors, Anuj Shukla — were arrested for airing footage of the same woman.
In a rare occasion of Indian media solidarity — including statements from media groups, protest marches and news coverage of the event in the mainstream media — pressure built to release Kanojia. The other journalists were not as lucky. Unfortunately, this is part of a broader trend.
Over the past three years, India dropped seven places to rank 140 on the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index. Though Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, and Article 21 guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty, there is no other law in place to protect journalists’ right to practice their profession safely and freely.
If anything, laws are routinely used to harass them. Criminal defamation, an archaic colonial law that was used against Kanojia and can lead to imprisonment up to two years, is a commonly invoked charge. But in many other cases, the government brings into play other criminals laws, such as maintaining public order and national security.
I have experienced this first hand. In 2016, I filed an investigative report for Outlook magazine on Hindu nationalist groups. When the report was published, criminal cases were filed against me with accusations of defamation and “inciting communal hatred.” The cases could land me in prison for up to five years. I am confident in my reporting, but often the process — with hefty legal fees, little to no support from media organizations and years of delays — is the punishment.
My experience is not unique. In 2010, a journalist with Tehelka magazine, K.K. Shahina, was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for investigating allegations that the Karnataka police framed Muslims in cases of terror. Next year will mark a decade since her fight began.
In another egregious case, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha, a journalist from the northeastern state of Manipur, spent four months in jail for writing Facebook posts that were critical of the actions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He was released in April.
The legal cases are a definite way to deter journalists from their duties and promote self-censorship. This is clear in the Uttar Pradesh government’s submission in Kanojia’s case, which says the arrest was necessary “to send a message.”
The government has also turned a blind eye to violence against journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as many as 70 journalists were killed in India over the course of 24 years until 2016. There have been reports of social media users — followed by the official Twitter handle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who have encouraged violence against journalists or writers critical of the ruling party. It appears no action has been taken against them.
The government has created an atmosphere that has normalized the impeding and targeting of journalists who speak truth to power. Modi has not answered questions at a single news conference in the past five years. V.K. Singh, a former army general and the minister of state for road transport and highways, famously called journalists “presstitutes.”
In this context, the number of arrests, attacks and legal cases against journalists suggests that the world’s largest democracy is heading toward becoming a police state. If the stifling of dissent and debate continues, it will not be long before Modi is included on the list of “democratators,” a term used by Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, for politicians who use democratic mandates to govern as dictators.
If the Indian government wanted to show its commitment to democracy and free speech, a good start would be the release of Aasif Sultan, a Kashmiri journalist who has been in jail since August for writing an article about slain militant Burhan Wani. One of the last publicly available images of Sultan is from September, when he appeared in court, handcuffed, holding his 6-month-old daughter and wearing a T-shirt reading, “Journalism is not a crime.” If only Indian authorities understood that.
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