In the 2017 World Press Freedom rankings, India, touted by the US as the “World’s Largest Democracy”, was placed 136th among 180 countries, a dismal ranking in the 67th year of the existence of the Indian constitution, which is, arguably, one of the most democratic constitutionsin the world.
Ironically, democratic structures and institutions have nourished pervasive repression by the State, powerful politicians, well connected business interests and politically inspired caste, communal and ‘nationalist” outfits. Their targets have invariably been the media, journalists, artistes, writers and film makers, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
This is partly because these elements influence peoples’ minds, partly because they are soft, defenseless and easily intimidated, and partly because their gagging gets the perpetrator maximum public attention which in turn helps him terrorize the entire society.
The ranking, done by “Reporters without Borders”, and released in April last year squarely blamed Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government for the deterioration of the conditions.
“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” the report says as it notes that India was three notches above in the ranking in the previous year.
The report mentioned that journalists were increasingly targets of online smear campaigns and threats.
“Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124A of the Penal Code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship,” the report notes.
The chilling details are in a study done by veteran journalist Sevanti Ninan and her distinguished team which has been published by the website TheHoot.org.
“The climate for journalism in India grew steadily adverse in 2017. A host of perpetrators made reporters and photographers, even editors, fair game as there were murders, attacks, threats, and cases filed against them for defamation, sedition, and internet related offences. It was a year in which two journalists were shot at point blank range and killed, and one was hacked to death as police stood by and did not stop the mob,” the study entitled Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 2017 said.
There were three killings of journalists which can be clearly linked to their journalism; 46 attacks; 27 cases of police action including detentions, arrests and cases filed; and 12 cases of threats.
“These are conservative estimates based on reporting in the English press only,” the study said.
The major perpetrators were the police, politicians and political workers, followed by right wing activists and other non-state actors.
“Law makers became law breakers as members of parliament and legislatures figured among the perpetrators of attacks or threats. These cases included a minister from Uttar Pradesh who threatened to set a journalist on fire, and an MLA from Chirala in Andhra Pradesh and his brother who were accused of being behind a brutal attack on a magazine journalist.”
“If Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav threatened to punch a Republic TV reporter in the face, his son Tejaswini’s guards assaulted reporters and photographers when they arrived at his house to get his reaction to an FIR being lodged against him on corruption.”
Karnataka journalist Gauri Lankesh, was shot dead on September 5, 2017 outside her home in Bengaluru. Till date, there has been no arrest. Santanu Bhowmick, a Tripura journalist from Din Raat news channel was killed on September 20, 2017. He was covering an agitation and road blockade by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) in Mandai, near the capital Agartala when he was spotted by IPFT supporters, caught and hacked to death with a daoas police watched.
Another journalist, Sudip Dutta Bhoumik, was shot dead on November 21, 2017 by the personal security officer of a commandant of the Tripura State Rifles (TSR). Bhaumik was a senior journalist with the Syandan Patrika, a leading Bengali newspaper in Agartala, who had gone to meet the local commandant with an appointment. He had an altercation with the PSO. Four personnel of the TSR including the battalion commandant were arrested.
TV channels bore the brunt of the violence that broke out in Haryana and parts of Delhi after a local religious leader was convicted of rape. Information Minister Smriti Irani tweeted a veiled warning to television channels by drawing attention to Clause B of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority Code on spreading panic, distress and undue fear!
According to Ch. Krishnanjeneyulu, President of the Andhra Pradesh Journalists’ Forum, stringers in the districts have been easy targets.
There were 13 cases of journalists being interrogated and let off, or arrested, or having cases registered against them. The 13 cases are from across the country. Frontline magazine correspondent Kunal Shankar was held in January for trespassing into the University of Hyderabad and violating the High Court order (barring outsider entry) on the first death anniversary of Rohith Vemula. He was questioned and subsequently released.
“ABC Four Corners”, an Australian news team, was threatened by the Crime Branch of Gujarat Police in October while it was at Gujarat’s Mundra port to investigate the Adanis, a business group close to Modi which is going to invest in Australia.
The Chhattisgarh government disclosed in the Assembly that it had arrested 14 journalists till November 2017. This was in response to a question raised by Leader of the Opposition, T.S. Singhdeo, in the wake of the arrest of journalist Vinod Verma from his home in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, late on October 26. (Verma is in the earlier list in this section.) Verma happened to have been part of the Editors Guild of India team that visited Jagdalpur, Bastar and Raipur districts in March 2017 to verify and assess the threats faced by journalists in Chhattisgarh.
Two state legislatures had acted against journalists in 2017. In June, the Speaker of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly and head of the House of Privileges’ Committee, K.B. Koliwad, sentenced editors of two local weeklies to one year in jail and imposed a fine of Rs. 10,000 each for having published allegedly defamatory articles about legislators thus breaching their privilege.
“Censorship was alive and well, took many forms and spanned many mediums in the year under review. The year saw the banning and burning of newspapers in Arunachal Pradesh by members of the Adi Baane Kebang Youth Wing,” the study said.
The Central Board of Secondary Education pressurized the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to replace a reference to the ‘Anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat’ in the political science textbook for Class XII with the phrase the ‘Gujarat Riots’. In August, a Delhi court restrained Juggernaut Books from publishing From Godmanto Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev after the yoga guru and businessman filed a petition against it.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority asked the Ministry of the Environment to ban the BBC from filming in protected forest areas of the country for five years. They also asked the Ministry of External Affairs not to renew BBC South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt’s visa, up for renewal in March 2017. Rowlatt’s documentary Killing for Conservation on the use of force in conservation efforts in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, pitched the broadcaster against the government.
A case was registered against Sameer Kochhar by the Cyber Cell of the Delhi Police Crime Branch for allegedly spreading rumors on the internet about the vulnerability of the “Aadhaar” unique identification system. In an article published in www.skoch.in on February 11, Kochhar had written that he was shocked when he was told that Aadhaar can be hacked as it has very poor security.
In June, the electronic media in Darjeeling were directed to stop airing Gorkhaland protests following a verbal order from the district magistrate. The Rajasthan government evoked the Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance 2017 that sought to bar the media from reporting on corruption charges against public servants, magistrates and judges without prior permission. But it was withdrawn after an outcry.
Amit Shah Case
October saw the website The Wire’s investigation into Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah’s company lead to self-censorship by other media companies. In October, comedian Shyam Rangeela alleged that Star Plus refused to air his act mimicking Prime Minister Modi. The act had been recorded for the channel’s reality show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. Earlier in 2017, Radio Mirchi scrapped its popular ‘Mitron’ segment, also mimicking Modi, apparently after complaints from senior BJP leaders.
At the end of the year, when a Caravan story on the 2014 death of Justice B H Loya, the judge handling the Sohrabuddinen counter death case made waves, there was a deafening silence from other media houses.
States Most Affected
Not surprisingly, the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir was the most affected and Sikkim on India’s northeastern border was least affected. Kashmir had 40 internet shutdowns against 77 recorded for the entire country. Delhi recorded a number of cases of defamation and instances of censorship and self-censorship. Maharashtra had the highest incidence of defamation and Andhra Pradesh the largest number of attacks on and threats to journalists. Karnataka had the highest number of state actions for internet and social media-related incidents.
Sedition, which is a very charge, had been evoked very liberally. It is used frequently against political dissenters and others fighting for their rights such as Jatsin Haryana and the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti seeking the inclusion of Belgaum into Maharashtra. Those who came into the sedition net, included students, cricket fans, followers of Gurmeet Singh of the Dera Sacha Sauda religious organization and even a youth who allegedly circulated a WhatsApp message that purportedly insulted the national flag.
“Sedition in India is seen by the powers that be as a weapon against mass dissent, if the number of people charged with the offence in 2017 is anything to go by – a staggering 335 persons, according to The Hoot’s tracker for 2017 in the 20 cases it recorded.”
The largest number of sedition cases came from Haryana, 152. These were involved in the agitation against the sentencing of Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmit Singh for rape. Uttar Pradesh followed closely with 111 persons. These had allegedly raised “anti-national” slogans when they celebrated the win of a Congress candidate in the civic polls. Kerala, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh had double digit sedition cases.
Prominent persons charged with sedition included the anti-corruption campaigner and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader, Akhil Gogoi, who was arrested on September 13 in Assam and released on December 27; T. Jayaraman, chief coordinator of the Anti-Methane Project Federation who was out on bail in another case but charged with sedition for his book opposing river interlinking. Sixty six students of Punjab University were charged with sedition for demonstrating against a fee hike, but this was later dropped.
Maharashtra emerged as the “defamation capital of the country,” the study said, recording 19 cases. Five of these were brought by film and TV personalities. The Adani group of companies brought a defamation case against the Sameeksha Trust which publishes the Economic and Political Weekly, its editor and other journalists.
Tamil Nadu recorded a low of seven cases, after many years, with the AIADMK filing just one, and none against a journalist! Between 2011 and 2016, the government under Supremo Jayalalitha had filed over 200 defamation cases against the media, opposition leaders and social activists.
Politicians were the largest category of complainants, followed by corporate houses.
Ten out of 16 hate speech cases registered were against BJP politicians and party members or against right wing groups such as the All India Hindu Sangathi Manch and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike.
A social activist in Andhra Pradesh was arrested for posting “objectionable content” against Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and his son Nara Lokesh on his Facebook page, “Political Punch.” Two Chhattisgarh journalists had cases against them for Facebook posts about the former Inspector General of Police’s meeting with Maoists.
India is becoming increasingly notorious for internet shutdowns, the study said.
“There was not a single month in 2017 when an internet shutdown was not in force in some part of the country. The year 2016 recorded 31 shutdowns. For 2017, the figure was 77, the majority in Jammu and Kashmir.”
“That film-making is challenge in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic democracy is a given. But 2017 was a turbulent year for film certification,” the study observes.
The newly appointed Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) chief, Prasoon Joshi said that “cinema may be an art, but it is for larger public consumption and film makers cannot insulate themselves from popular sentiment.”
The CBFC was particularly sensitive to content with references to political figures, words and events. Makers of films like Modi Ka Gaon, Indu Sarkar and An Insignificant Man, were ordered to get “no objection certificates” from the politicians who were being referred to in the films.
Modi Ka Gaon is about Narendra Modi’s development agenda and is aactually a tribute to his policies. Indu Sarkar is a reference to the Emergency years under Indira Gandhi. An Insignificant Man traces the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal as a key leader of the party. In January, the CBFC had ordered the censoring of a reference to Rahul Gandhi in the film Coffee with D.
The CBFC was sensitive to references to current politics. The Argumentative Indian – a documentary about Nobel laureate Amartya Sen – had actually been denied censor board clearance because the film’s director refused to beep words like ‘Hindutva’, ‘cow’ and Gujarat’.
The words ‘Patidar’ and ‘Patel’ were beeped from the film Hamein Haq Chahiye Haq Se, which has many scenes reminiscent of the Patidar job quota movement in Gujarat. The trailer of the Tamil film Neelam about the Sri Lankan civil war was denied certification in October on the grounds that it could affect relations between the two countries.
In October, the BJP government demanded the muting or deletion of scenes from the Tamil movie Mersal made in Tamil Nadu which contained scenes critical of the controversial General Sales Tax.
The Bollywood movie Padmavati has been attacked by the governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and Gujarat. They want it banned for “distortion of history”.
In June, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting banned the exhibition of three documentaries at the 10th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. These were: In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, March March March and The Unbearable Being of Lightness. The films were about the troubles in Kashmir, the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ agitation and the protests following the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, respectively.
(The featured image at the top shows people protesting against the lynching of journalist Shantanu Bhowmick)