Nearly three months into its coronavirus lockdown, India is continuing its transformation into one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.
Small media outlets are suffering financially. Restrictions on movement prevent reporters from getting to the story. And any journalists who dare to question the Modi government’s official line face threats and intimidation. All this is eroding what was once one of the world’s most vibrant media landscapes.
While online attacks against prominent and critical voices with large social media followings have received growing international attention, other journalists working in remote corners of the country, who routinely face threats on their lives, get far less publicity.
The extent to which the Modi government is prepared to silence any criticism of its actions borders on the absurd.
“Even basic reporting on the failing health, food, transport infrastructures is being criminalized,” Neha Dixit, an independent journalist based in Delhi, told me. “There is no tolerance for any reflection on state failure to provide the bare minimum during the pandemic. There is an equal attack on journalists across the country. The difference is that the attacks on journalists in urban areas get reported; the rural ones do not get attention.”
Dixit, a winner of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, is now sounding the alarm bells over the deteriorating treatment of the press in her homeland.
Since the government imposed limitations on commerce and movement inside India in late March, at least 10 reporters have been arrested or charged with criminal offenses relating to their coverage of the pandemic.
The offenses in question cover a wide range of subjects that tend to prompt official paranoia — from the lack of personal protective equipment for hospital workers to the absolutely farcical arrest of a journalist who had the audacity to question why relatives of a patient who tested positive for the coronavirus were themselves quarantined for speaking to the infected person by phone.
That journalist, Zubair Ahmed, faces an array of charges. The most ridiculous: a “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.”
Neeraj Shivhare, another journalist who faced criminal charges, was cited for reporting on a woman who was forced to sell her refrigerator so she could buy basic supplies for her family.
A court summons to Shivhare explained, “The whole nation is dealing with the pandemic and publishing such posts can create an atmosphere of fear in the public. The post has damaged the image of the administration.”
These are two examples of many. It’s likely that many other cases are going unreported.
This increased legal pressure has led many Indian journalists to avoid reporting on sensitive issues. Few employees with jobs at competitive national media outlets are willing to risk their livelihoods or safety by doing critical reporting.
Meanwhile, due to the lack of personal safety for freelancers and shrinking budgets, coverage outside of large metropolises is disappearing. Some rural parts of the country are at risk of becoming news deserts.
Modi seems to be fine with that.
Since taking power in 2014, Modi and his government have shown no interest in maintaining a free press. In fact, the opposite is true.
Dixit note that the prime minister of the world’s biggest democracy doesn’t hold press conferences — additional evidence of his disdain for the press. Such attempts to reduce official accountability can have far-reaching effects — as President Trump’s similar approach has shown.
“The same attitude has been adopted by the state governments who are also criminalizing journalism,” Dixit told me.
A recent study in India suggests that there have been at least 200 serious attacks on individual journalists in the Modi era. In that time, at least 40 of them were killed. India has become one of the world’s deadliest places to practice journalism. And it’s only getting worse.
“The international community needs to start acknowledging that in the last six years, under the present government led by Modi, there have been unprecedented human rights violations in India,” Dixit said.
The pandemic has provided a new pretext for Modi to infringe on journalists and their work. When the pandemic is over, India should be pressed on its record of suppressing journalism. Failure to do so would deal a blow to a core democratic value that, once lost, may be impossible to regain.
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