In ominous news for free expression and media in India, a study has found that 154 journalists were arrested, detained or interrogated between 2010 and 2020 in India, and 40% of these cases were reported in 2020 alone. Called ‘Behind Bars: Arrest and Detention of Journalists in India 2010-20’, the research has been done by independent journalist Geeta Seshu for the Free Speech Collective, and analyses the decade of summons, detention, arrests, questioning and show-causes notices against scribes in the past decade.
Further, nine foreign journalists also faced deportation, arrest, interrogation and denial of entry into India during this time period. “Along with the already prevailing impunity for crimes against journalists, these instances clamp down on the flow of information and have a chilling effect on the freedom of the media in India,” the report said.
Apart from being booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), ‘terror’ related charges and sedition have also been increasingly used against mediapersons. Presently, three journalists are in custody for cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, with one of them having been sentenced to life imprisonment. Criminal defamation suits by politicians and corporate houses have also been plenty; and contempt charges have been rising to curb free speech. Recently, comedian Kunal Kamra and comic Sanitary Panels creator Rachita Taneja were booked under contempt of court charges.
India has been slipping lower on indices that measure safety of journalists and freedom of expression in the country, and is also the country with the most internet shutdowns. At least 64 shutdowns were seen in 2020 alone. And in 2019, the abrogation of article 370 of the Constitution saw one of the longest internet shutdowns in Kashmir, which was downgraded from a state to a Union Territory. Full 4G internet is still not functional there.
Worryingly, while physical assault of journalists has increased – at least 198 attacks being recorded being 2014-19, with 36 in 2019 alone – the conviction rate in the country on deaths of journalists is dismal. While over 30 journalists have died since 2010, there have only been three convictions, the report pointed out.
The study also indicates lack of proper action being taken. “Attacks on journalists, including the horrific hounding and assault on Caravan journalists Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh and a woman journalist in the national capital in Delhi on August 11, continue unabated. In this instance, despite lodging official complaints, police failed to register an FIR. Other cases, shrouded in impunity, are poorly investigated. The nexus between law-enforcing agencies, the local administration and local business and political interests have ensured that justice remains elusive.”
Incidentally, 73 of the 154 cases documented in the study in the past decade have been reported from BJP-ruled states. “Another 30 cases were reported from states ruled by BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Of the cases in BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh led the pack with 29 cases. Other instances are from states under President’s Rule or Governor’s rule, directly under the control of the Union government,” the report said.
The first four years of the decade had the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in power, wherein between 2010 and May 2014, 19 such cases were recorded against journalists. The number of cases has been in double digits since 2017.
Fifty-six journalists spent time behind bars in the last decade before getting bail. In 2020, Prashant Kanojia spent 80 days behind bars for allegedly posting a tweet related to the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
Many of the journalists who had cases filed against them in “drastic” response to their work, the report said. These include Neha Dixit who in 2016 wrote an expose in Outlook on trafficking of young girls from tribal communities in Assam, called ‘Operation Babylift’, allegedly by the Sangh Parivar; journalist Ashwani Saini who had five FIRs against him for a video report on failure of administration during lockdown and other stories pertaining to the pandemic; journalists Abhilash Padacherry, Ananthu Rajagopal who were arrested on charges of obstructing public officials when they were covering the Vadayampadi ‘caste wall’ in Kerala in 2018; among many others
The last year also saw cases against Republic TV owner Arnab Goswami and Zee News channel editor Sudhir Chaudhary in regard to allegedly inflammatory news coverage. The former was also arrested on charges of abetment to suicide, and was released on bail after a Supreme Court order. “The case provided stark evidence of preferential treatment regarding the grant of bail accorded to mediapersons perceived to be close to the ruling political party, in stark contrast to the harassment and prolonged incarceration of journalists who are seen as critical voices against the ruling establishment,” the study pointed out.
Among states, Uttar Pradesh had 29 cases against journalists in the last decade – the highest in India – followed by Chhattisgarh (17), Jammu and Kashmir (16), Tamil Nadu (15), and Delhi (10).