Lawsuits and media killings in India restrict press freedom, experts say

The prosecutions, murders and intimidation of journalists in India contribute to the country’s bad luck in the eyes of media watchdogs.

In its latest report, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that India tied with Yemen for the number of journalists killed in relation to their work in 2021.

The head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, Daniel Bastard, told VOA it was part of a “long-standing trend”.

Four journalists have been killed in 2021, making India the third deadliest country. But, says Bastard, in the past five years at least 18 journalists have been killed.

“In many cases, Indian journalists are usually victims of targeted killings after trying to cover local organized crime activities, such as trafficking in alcohol, illegal gambling or practicing illegal medicine in many fake clinics,” Bastard said.

Indian media has also seen a growing trend of legal harassment and intimidation against those who do not toe the line of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bastard believes.

“Censorship and self-censorship have steadily increased in recent years,” Bastard said.

India rejected RSF’s findings.

In a written response to the lower house of parliament, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said the government disagreed with the watchdog’s findings and that RSF used a small sample, did not weigh the “fundamentals of democracy” or provide a “clear definition of press freedom.”

VOA sent emails to the Ministry of Information seeking comment but, at the time of publication, had not received a response. The BJP did not respond to emails sent to its spokesperson’s office seeking comment.

FILE – Journalists watch India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi address the nation, at a journalists’ club in Siliguri, India October 20, 2020.

Common charges against journalists include sedition or anti-state charges, with media rights groups saying the charges are often linked to coverage deemed critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party or policies.

In November alone, the state body, the Press Council of India, registered 51 complaints against the media, including accusations of false or defamatory news. It also received 13 complaints from journalists alleging that their rights had been restricted.

Digital combat

Social media is also under pressure from the government, with thousands of takedown requests being filed on Twitter. Most of the requests were related to critical reporting or satire of the Modi administration, a media researcher found.

Paroma Soni, a data journalist from Mumbai who is currently in New York as a Columbia Journalism Review fellow, found that in 2020, the Indian government asked Twitter to delete almost 10,000 tweets, compared to about 1 200 the previous year.

The reporter acknowledged that the data had some limitations, including what she called a lack of transparency on the part of the government. But she told VOA that her investigation “uncovers thousands of legal orders, given to Twitter by the government, to remove critical tweets, some of which are also the basis for arrests or lawsuits.”

New legislation and guidelines on digital and social media have made it easier for the state to control online speech, Soni said.

Laws meant to tackle offensive social media posts are being used to remove reports from online news websites, with little or no recourse for those affected, Soni said.

Over the past few years, India has seen a surge in the number of journalists officially or unofficially targeted for their work, she added.

“Police, acting at the behest of the government, have been known to intimidate and arrest journalists whose work has criticized the government, deemed ‘anti-national’ or generally negative towards Hindutva ideology,” Soni said.

Recently, Assam journalist Anirban Roy Choudhury, owner of the Barak Bulletin news site, was charged with sedition after publishing an op-ed that authorities deemed “objectionable”.

The charge relates to a November 28 editorial opposing authorities imposing Assamese in the Barak Valley. Issues of language and identity have long been a hot topic in the region, which is populated by Assamese and Bengalis.

Sedition cases have risen by a third since the BJP came to power, Soni said.

“I think what is most alarming is that the battle is not just between the government and the media criticizing it; it is also over how public opinion is shaped. The BJP is in power on a Hindu nationalist platform, but the vast majority of India also prescribes to these ideologies,” Soni said.

In addition to lawsuits and attacks, “it may manifest itself in harassment and threats from online trolls,” she said.

The impact of such an environment is self-censorship, said Pushparaj Deshpande, editor of the Rethinking India series. The 14-volume socioeconomics and politics series is published by Penguin India and the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, an organization established to promote progressive ideas and policies.

“A vast majority of media houses are forced into submission. Editors are subtly coerced into self-censorship, journalists are denied access to legislatures or incarcerated on bogus cases for holding governments to account “, Deshpande said. “Frankly, freedom of the press in India has become a constitutional value more honored in violation than its observance.”

Global problem

However, Nayanima Basu, diplomacy editor at ThePrint, believes the experiences of Indian media are mirrored around the world.

“Press freedom has been under threat in all democracies ever since the media became the fourth pillar of democracy. It is only getting worse now and becoming more visible due to the emergence of social media,” said Basu.

“Any populist government believes in restricting the freedom of the press and perpetuating propaganda. That said, it is true that journalists today must be firm and perfect in fact-checking and not indulge in artifice. Do reporting, do journalism, not activism or publicity,” she added.

Editor’s note: The reporter for this article has previously contributed to RSF but was not involved in researching the report cited in this article.

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