On June 8, an executive editor with a digital news publication called Scroll published a story claiming that lockdown rules were inadvertently causing people in a village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to go hungry. The story wouldn't have been controversial, except that the village had been "adopted" by India's Prime Minister in 2018 as part of a rural development program. And in this roundabout way, the article had criticised the Prime Minister.
On June 13, the editor behind the story, Supriya Sharma, was charged by the Uttar Pradesh police for defamation and “attempting to spread infection."
On June 18, Sharma released a statement saying she, along with the rest of Scroll stood by the story. “This FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown,” she wrote.
The case is ongoing, but what's truly concerning is how this case is representative of an emerging pattern. Because as coronavirus spreads across India, the nation's government has began persecuting journalists who write stories that deviate from the official narrative.
On June 15, a report by Delhi-based human rights think tank Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) listed 55 Indian journalists facing criminal charges and other forms of intimidations. The list includes cases of arrest, physical assault, destruction of property, and intimidation just for reporting on COVID-19 between March 25 and May 31.
Journalists have been targeted by the police for reporting on the poor quality of India's personal protective equipment kits, the poor conditions of relief camps for migrant workers, and descriptions of starvation during the lockdown.
Throughout the outbreak and subsequent lockdown, the governments of India and its states have also been criticised for withholding information from the public. The Indian Government has been accused of lying to the country’s top court about the troubles faced by migrant workers, while the High Court of the South Indian state of Telangana criticised its government for a lack of transparency.
At one point, the Government of India was accused of restricting journalists’ questions during its COVID-19 briefings. Yet India continues to deny the existence of community transmission of the virus despite being fourth on the list of countries with the highest number of infections.
The RRAG report listed UP, where Sharma was charged, as the state with most cases against journalists.
“The behaviour of UP towards its journalists was never good,” said Prashant Kanojia, a Delhi-based journalist who documents the targeting of media employees in the state. “They don’t give out information and they intimidate journalists all the time.”
Kanojia said there is a clear divide between the facts reported on the ground, and the version that government officials want printed. “If you show information from the ground, you’re booked,” said the journalist, who was charged with an FIR by a local political leader for allegedly tweeting “hate comments” against PM Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
In April, international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders placed India at 142 out of 180 countries at the 2020 Press Freedom Index. Prakash Javadekar, the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister of India, dismissed the report and said India “enjoys absolute freedom”.
“There is a chilling effect of taking action against one journalist so that others don't question too,” said Zubair Ahmed, a journalist based out of Andaman Islands. Ahmed was arrested in April for questioning the state’s move to quarantine people based on their call records on Twitter.
In March, an investigative report by The Caravan claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested the owners and editors of select news organisations to publish “positive stories” about the pandemic. Further scrutiny revealed that most cooperated, or at least exhibited restraint when questioning the government.
Vrinda Grover, Indian lawyer and human rights activist, told VICE News that in addition to cracking down on journalists, state and police officials are increasingly entangling journalist in bureaucratic restrictions and legal battles.
“During the pandemic, very stringent, non-bailable sections are being invoked against journalists,” she said. “For instance, in [senior journalist] Vinod Dua’s case, sedition offence has been raised. In Supriya’s case, it is the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that is being misused. The government is blatantly deploying criminal law to strangle freedom of press.”
The “misuse” of SC/ST Act—which protects the marginalised communities from atrocities—was condemned by Indian journalist organisations.
Senior journalist Dua, at the same time, was charged with sedition, defamation and public nuisance on June 12, for his YouTube show on the Delhi communal riots in Delhi earlier this year.
“The point of lodging these FIRs is not whether [these charges] will hold up to judicial scrutiny, or a case can be made out. There is good reason for me to say that these cases will collapse before court,” said Grover. “The end goal is very different. It’s to silence any journalist asking critical questions inconvenient to the state, and to send a chilling effect so that no other journalist dares to present a version inconsistent with State speak.”
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