Illustration: Fawaz Dalvi
No Country for Free Press

Media Freedom in the Indian Subcontinent

On World Press Freedom Day, we get Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International Writers in Prison Committee, to write about the reality that exists.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
illustrated by Fawaz Dalvi

On August 6, 2018, a defining image surfaced of an ordeal that would later become the 107-day imprisonment of the Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam. He is surrounded by police officers, and looking straight into the camera: A face stricken with fear. The image went ‘viral’. He was being produced in court after being charged under the infamous Section 57 of the Information Communications Technology Act—Bangladesh’s draconian law that has been used to crack down on dissent against the government. Alam was arrested after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera, which featured his “provocative” statement against the government’s violent response to student-led protests.


In Bangladesh, press freedom reports have been alarming, to say the least. But Alam’s arrest revived the international community’s concern for the country and its laws that have endangered its journalists, writers, poets and bloggers for several years. On November 21, 2018, Alam was released on bail; he still faces a maximum of 14 years of prison if convicted.

And Bangladesh is not alone.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is keeping up with the alarming trend of the deterioration of free press. Last year, the arrest of journalist Gautam Navlakha along with four other writers was arrested in August last year, for alleged Maoist links, shook the country. In Kashmir, where violence due to the ongoing conflict is a perpetual threat to journalists, we saw the arrest of photojournalist Kamran Yousuf under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in 2017, without any charges filed against him to date. He was released last year in March. The same state put Kashmir Narrator journalist Aasif Sultan behind bars in August, 2018, charging him with “complicity” in “harbouring known terrorists” under UAPA, soon after he wrote a cover story on the slain militant commander in Kashmir, Burhan Wani. The year ended with the arrest of Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem.

And when the new year pulled in, so did the news of sedition charges against, among other intellectuals, Assamese journalist Manjit Mahanta during the ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati.


Pen International—a global body that promotes literature and freedom of expression—aptly sums up the current era in three words: “oppression”, “collusion” and “lethal threat”. Their “numbing” statistics highlights Asia/Pacific as the most vulnerable region across the world—with 218 documented attacks on freedom of expression within one year. The highly talked-about case of Myanmarese journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a glaring reminder. Imprisoned for reporting on the Rohingya violence in the Rakhine state last year, the two Reuters journalists recently lost their appeal, were found guilty and will remain in the Myanmar jail for seven years in breach of the country’s Official Secrets Act.

This, in the face of this latest report by independent watchdog, Freedom House, according to which only 13% of the world’s population enjoys free press. And the Indian subcontinent cuts a deep, glaring wound across this perilous trend.

The Indian Subcontinent has long been under the spotlight for ranking low on press freedom. The 2019 World Press Index ranked the subcontinent (out of 180) on the freedom of expression available to their journalists. While “animosity towards journalists” is a trend across the world, the Indian Subcontinent has fared dangerously low:

Bangladesh: 150
Pakistan: 142
India: 140
Sri Lanka: 126
Nepal: 106

“Matters are quite dire across South Asia,” Indiana-based Sumit Ganguly, who is the South Asia consultant with Freedom House, tells VICE. “Of course, the situation is probably the worst in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where norms of reporting are weak, where legislation can be used to hound journalists, and where there have been bouts of military rule. The quality of journalism is also very poor in Sri Lanka and Nepal. In a large part, this stems from inadequate training, insufficient resources and governmental interference. Sadly, even in India, press freedoms are under serious assault.”


In this Orwellian state of affairs, euphemisms and censorship have taken over critical reporting. Author Mohammed Hanif—in this piece titled ‘Censorship Under Military Dictators Was Bad. It May Be Worse in a Democracy’—observes this in Pakistan: “Urdu journalists are writing about national politics in parables. Current affairs programs criticising the army are routinely dropped at the last moment. Reporters seen as critical of the army are losing their jobs.” Similarly, in Nepal, a new criminal code prohibits the release of private information without prior consent.

Before we set off this week-long series—with stories and experiences from the subcontinent (some anonymous, others not)—we speak with Salil Tripathi—Chair of PEN International Writers in Prison Committee—to give us an overview of what’s happened so far:

VICE: Tell us about PEN International and the different campaigns and activism that the organisation is involved in?
Salil Tripathi: PEN is a community of writers, and today we are active in more than 100 countries. It is also a community of readers, and we work to advance the freedom to read and the freedom to write. Our activism takes many forms, including public advocacy at the UN and other international organisations, or through the media.

We stand vigil in front of embassies; we organise protests; we get distinguished writers to write on behalf of other writers in prison; we take up specific issues, such as seeking safety and security for refugee writers; we champion languages and cultures being forgotten; we support families of writers in prison; we assist writers who need to move to other countries for reasons of their own safety; we issue recommendations and statements; we publish books; and we celebrate writers who are champions of freedom. We also publish reports on countries where freedom of expression faces challenges—in recent years, our reports have been prepared by the Centres or by the Secretariat, and have included work out of Cuba, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Hungary, India, on themes such as languages and criminal defamation.


What are some of the more recent cases you’ve been campaigning for?
November 15 is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. In 2018, we focused on Oleg Sentsov, imprisoned in Russia; Shahidul Alam detained in Bangladesh (he was released on bail at the time of writing); Dawit Isaak imprisoned in Eritrea; Wael Abbas imprisoned in Egypt; and Miroslava Breach Velducea, who was murdered in Mexico. We are delighted that several writers for whose freedom we fought are now free, such as Dareen Tatour of Palestine. We grieve the death of Liu Xiaobo in China, and continue to press for justice in cases such as the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Gauri Lankesh, and Daphne Caruana Galizia. These are just some of the recent cases of writers and journalists we have campaigned for. Unfortunately, the individual cases that we campaign for are too many to name. The space to safely and freely express oneself is shrinking fast, which is why the work of organisations like PEN International continues to be vital.

In India, clamp downs on press freedom exist in different ways. Could you talk about your observations?
PEN has published two recent reports (here and here), which highlight some of our ongoing concerns. The fundamental change in recent years has been the threat posed by non-state actors, which has led to five prominent murders—Gauri Lankesh, Shujaat Bukhari, Dr M M Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare—as well as intimidation and harassment faced by women journalists, both online and in the real world.


Could you talk about the pattern of these clamp downs across the subcontinent?
It is best I respond with examples. I mentioned the writers being killed in India. Our annual case list will showcase other instances in the region. In Nepal, I remember we were concerned about the attacks on Kanak Mani Dixit and Himal magazine; in Sri Lanka, we are concerned about disappeared journalists and the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge; in Bangladesh, our concerns have included the arrest of Shahidul Alam, the killing of bloggers, and the draconian Digital Security Act; and in Pakistan, the use of blasphemy laws as well as the murder of Sabeen Mahmud.

What kind of threats and dangers do journalists and photographers face in India? Where do you think press freedom is headed?
The threats Indian journalists face are not vastly different from the threats faced by journalists in many other countries. But there have been instances of harassment and intimidation. Women journalists are vulnerable to attacks online and in the real world. Take the cases of Rana Ayyub, Barkha Dutt, and Swati Chaturvedi. Criminal defamation cases are a powerful tool in the hands of those with power and resources to silence journalists. Social media platforms are driving some journalists away. Those who are intolerant target writers and journalists of all hues: take the case of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra in Odisha.

True, as with other countries, media credibility has suffered in India, too, partly due to the partisan nature of politics, the increasing shrillness in public discourse, and the business interests of media owners. But it is reassuring and heartwarming to see many journalists continuing to remain true to their calling, the rise of some websites investing significant resources to check facts, and some offering systematic data journalism, and some, offering alternative points of view and undertaking deep reporting, including through the internet that aren't easy to find in the mainstream media.

No Indian government has taken a rosy view of the press. What does set apart the current government from the governments of the past, is the impunity enjoyed by those who attack the press, physically as well as verbally. That can intimidate journalists. That journalists and writers continue to defy and challenge shows the deep roots of freedoms in India. As Edward Behr, the former Newsweek correspondent and editor, once said, “Freedom of expression is India's jewel; India must guard it at all times.”

Interviewees are solely responsible for their statements and do not reflect the views of VICE India.

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