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Journalists Targeted by the Indian Government

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Marcel Man


The Decline of Freedom of Press in India

Freedom of press, while a noble notion and a right “legally protected” by the constitution of India, has been eroding in the very country. Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization of international scope which aims to “promote and defend the freedom to be informed and to inform others throughout the world”,[1] published their annual survey regarding global press freedom, with India ranking 142nd from the index of 180 countries. According to the comprehensive report on The World Press Freedom Index 2020, India’s continual decline in the ranks is attributable to “constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials”.[2] To refute these “allegations”, Prakash Javadekar, the incumbent Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, obstinately claims that the questionnaires have a tendency to paint India in a negative light, and asserts that Indian media enjoy absolute freedom.[3] Nevertheless, present-day circumstances would prove otherwise. The Indian authorities have now pressed groundless criminal charges against eight journalists who had provided coverage revolving the ongoing farmer protests in Delhi, evincing that India’s human rights infringements do extend towards freedom of press.



The Indian Farmers’ Protest

To provide context, the protests were first set in motion by the three Farm Acts legislated by the Indian governing bodies in September 2020. These agricultural measures result in drastic alterations as to how crops are sold on the market. The Indian government had argued that these Acts would “build an ecosystem that provides farmers the freedom to sell their produce, multiple trading options, remunerative prices, and an efficient and barrier-free agricultural market”.[4] However, farmers, with the majority originating from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been marching and rallying in Delhi with their demands to fully repeal the agricultural reform, due to their dissatisfaction with the mandi system of sale which they view would bring about the consequences of favouring corporations and exploiting farmers. In spite of 11 rounds of attempted negotiations engaged by both sides, the impasse is still locked in place with the farmers refusing the government’s proposal of merely holding off the implementation of the reforms for 18 months. Instead, farmers are still insistent on withdrawing the Acts altogether.


Prosecution of Journalists in India

While the protests regarding the farm laws remained ongoing, a particular rally during India’s Republic Day on January 26th resulted in violence. A number of demonstrators diverged from the previously agreed-upon route, broke the police barricades and stormed into Delhi’s historic Red Fort to raise religious and farm union flags, which inevitably led to riotous conflicts with the police force. One protester, Navreet Singh Hundal, was killed and more than 400 police officers suffered injuries during the clash. The cause of death of the protester has been heavily contested: police authorities have made official statements that the man was killed by his own overturned tractor, while his family made allegations that Delhi police shot him fatally. The police have now filed criminal charges against the eight journalists who have reported and published Navreet’s family’s account, with accusations of their “misreport of facts” with regard to his demise. Among the charges include “sedition and making statements inimical to national integration.”[5] Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the few journalists charged, provides the rhetorical question if it is “a crime for media to report statements of relatives of a dead person if they question a post-mortem or police version of the cause of death”.[6] Many human rights organisations and fellow journalists have condemned the Indian government’s prosecution of those merely reporting news that everyone should be privy to. The Editors Guild of India, an association of Indian editorial leaders with the objective of protecting press freedom, have stated the charges as “an attempt to intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media”.[7] This has not been the first time the government has attempted to silence and punish the press. Just last year, journalists working with the Caravan Magazine were attacked for covering riots revolving religion and rape, raising the question as to how long it would take India to progress to an absolute freedom of press.


 

Image: Picture in Julia Hollingsworth, Swati Gupta and Esha Mitra, ‘Tens of thousands of farmers swarm India's capital to protest deregulation rules’ CNN (6 December 2020) <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/12/01/asia/delhi-farmers-india-protests-intl-hnk/index.html> accessed 17 February 2021

[1] Reporters Without Borders, ‘Our Values’ <https://rsf.org/en/our-values> accessed 17 February 2021 [2] ‘India ranks 142nd on global press freedom index’ The Economic Times (22 April 2020) <https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-ranks-142nd-on-global-press-freedom-index/articleshow/75279460.cms?from=mdr> accessed 17 February 2021 [3] ‘India slips in press freedom rankings; Javadekar slams report’ The Hindu (3 May 2020) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-slips-in-press-freedom-rankings-javadekar-slams-report/article31494652.ece> accessed 17 February 2021 [4] Sthanu R Nair and Reddy Sai Shiva Jayanth, ‘How farmers view the existing Mandi system’ The New Indian Express (12 December 2020) <http://cms.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2020/dec/12/how-farmers-view-the-existing-mandi-system-2235123.html> accessed 17 February 2021 [5] Soutik Biswas, ‘Why journalists in India are under attack’ BBC News (4 February 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-55906345> accessed 17 February 2021 [6] ibid [7] ‘Editors’ Guild, IWPC, Press Club of India and INC condemn FIRs against journalists’ National Herald India, (India, 30 January 2021) <https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/india/editors-guild-iwpc-press-club-of-india-and-inc-condemn-firs-against-journalists> accessed 17 February 2021

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