I am writing today about how extraordinarily difficult it is to be an independent journalist today in India — a thriving democracy when it comes to elections and the peaceful transition of power, but a distinctly diminishing democracy when it comes to other institutional freedoms. Instead of a compassionate compact between the citizen and the state, draconian high-handedness has become the norm rather than the exception. Patriotism is policed, the police are politicized, dissent is penalized, the media is compromised and satire is criminalized. In this divided environment, paranoia thrives.
Indian democracy has seen challenges before — Indira Gandhi’s emergency declaration in the 1970s remains the most notorious example. The irony is that many leaders of the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party went to jail in those years in protest. Today, because of the dissonance between electoral success and institutional accountability — the BJP continues to win elections — the depletion of freedoms is more difficult to identify.
The hateful video that called for violence against me and other journalists has been taken down by some platforms. But by that point, half a million people had already viewed it. It came against the backdrop of the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who has been accused of sedition for collaborating on an online “toolkit” to amplify the ongoing farmers’ protests. Authorities allege that Ravi participated in an international conspiracy, along with teen activist Greta Thunberg and a secessionist Sikh group based in Canada. Ravi’s organization has denied any connection with the group, citing a “lack of research” in including a certain link in the toolkit.
Ravi spent 10 days in custody before being granted bail. The judge in the case had to remind India of the most basic of democratic principles: Disagreeing with the state’s policies doesn’t make you a traitor.
But the controversy offered the perfect opportunity for the government to deflect from its poor handling of the protests. Until the court called the toolkit for what it is — “innocuous” — it was made to sound like an arsenal deployed to blow up the Indian political establishment.
And so the threatening video targeted me and other journalists because we were listed in the toolkit as reporters covering the protests. It is striking that the police clamped down on Ravi but took no action against a man who was openly inciting violence. And the calls for our execution did not stop at least four members of the BJP and its ideological affiliates from endorsing the video and complaining about censorship when it was removed by YouTube.
The video also called for our arrest. And because yesterday’s trolls are today’s mainstream, and what might have seemed entirely implausible a few years ago is now completely plausible, a week later, the prospect of going to jail is no longer academic.
On Saturday, police in the state of Uttar Pradesh filed a criminal case against me and my team for a report on Mojo Story, a digital platform that I edit and run, about the murder of two Dalit girls. The two sections of the law that were cited could mean up to three years in prison. And because the Information and Technology Act has been invoked against our Twitter handle, our lawyers warn that it could allow police to seize our phones and computers. All this because the victims’ families told us that police initially pushed for an early cremation, something they successfully resisted. Last year, in another village where a Dalit woman was allegedly raped and murdered, we were barricaded from accessing the village for two days, and the cremation was performed in the middle of the night.
The aim of the police is clear: to create fear and drag us into a legal vortex so we think twice before being critical.
Indeed, journalists who are still willing to be independent are increasingly vulnerable in India. One study found that in 2020, 67 reporters were questioned, detained or arrested for doing their jobs, as India slipped two places on the World Press Freedom Index. This January alone, five journalists were arrested, the highest number in nearly three decades.
Despite all the challenges — including threats to physical safety, misogynistic abuse and trolling, and curtailed access to government and information — I remain privileged to get support from colleagues, as well as international media groups such as the Coalition for Women in Journalism, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. As emotionally exhausting and mentally debilitating as it feels, I am determined to battle on.
But when I think of reporters in smaller towns and cities without the same access to resources and platforms — including Siddique Kappan, a reporter from Kerala who has been in jail for more than 100 days — I think that we do in fact need a toolkit, one that will allow us to repair and reassemble our wounded democracy.
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