The State of Press Freedom in India

gagged-graffiti
Shrenik Rao/ 7MB
"Why did they have to set me on fire?...They could have beaten me instead of pouring petrol and burning me".

On June 1, 2015, Jagendra Singh lay on a stretcher in tremendous pain. It’s said that death by burning is among the worst ways to die. The lucky ones die of shock soon after the initial burns. Those that live on, suffer excruciating pain until they perish. In this state, the local journalist from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh managed to ask the final question of his reporting career:

…why did they have to set me on fire?…They could have beaten me instead of pouring petrol and burning me.

He died later that day. The video of his dying words spread on the internet, where he named the person he held accountable for dousing him in kerosene and setting him alight – the state’s minister for Dairy Development, Ram Murti Singh Verma.

Singh alleged that Verma’s goons broke into his house in the afternoon, in the company of police officers ostensibly there to arrest him on defamation charges. For months, Singh had reported on graft scams by the named minister – and had repeatedly received threats for doing so.

Despite his story and video circulating numerous news outlets, a month from Singh’s death, the police report still recorded the cause of death as a suicide. That year, India was declared the most lethal place in Asia to be a journalist.

The state of Press Freedom

Two year’s since Jagendra’s killing and India has grown worse in its treatment of journalists. The press freedom index maintained by Reporters Without Borders ranked the world’s largest democracy at 136th out of 180 countries. It was a drop of three places from the previous year. Myanmar, a country undergoing the ethnic cleansing of its Muslim Rohingya minorities, ranked five positions higher than India.

Where India ranks highly is the Global Impunity Index – which records countries where journalist’s killers are most likely to go unpunished. In 2014, India was the 13th best place in the world to kill a journalist.

Discussions on free speech in India invariably turn to Article 19 of the Indian Constitution – which provides to all citizens (amongst other things) the right to freedom of speech and expression. The expression of the Constitution was to be an expression of India’s newly gained independence from repressive British rule. Yet, one thing that had not changed during the transition was the freedom of speech.

As Abhinav Chandrachud writes in ‘Republic of Rhetoric, Free Speech and the Constitution of India”, free speech today is subject to the same exceptions as it was during British rule; sedition, hate speech, obscenity, contempt of court and defamation. Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, which gives the government the power to prosecute people on the charge of sedition, was introduced in 1870. It’s the same law under which Mahatma Gandhi was arrested in 1922.

With nothing explicitly guaranteeing press freedom, India’s journalists were left unguarded when the Emergency struck in 1974. In 1994, A.G. Noorani recognized the challenge this posed and wrote:

The time has come to recognise explicitly the right to freedom of the press – as an institutional freedom.

Since then, 41 journalists have been killed in India in cases where the motives for doing so are clear, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to the Press Council of India, that number is 80. Reform has taken place, in the economy, in the privatisation of media but not in the fundamental guarantees of safety for whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers. Many governments have come and gone but media freedoms have stayed the same.

Under the current administration, it’s notable that the Prime Minister has yet to give a press conference in three years of rule. The rhetoric against the media has never been harsher than under the NDA-II regime; as now, elements from both citizens and the state are emerging as the latest threats against journalists. The recent daylight murder of Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore was just another killing in a field where ideologies matter less than the amount of protection one has.

On October 21, an RSS-member and Dainik Jagran journalist, Rajesh Mishra, was shot dead by unknown assailants in Uttar Pradesh. The previous month, Shantanu Bhowmick was beaten to death in the North-Eastern state of Tripura.

Asides from murder, journalists and news organisations also face the routine threat of legal intimidation.

Gagging the media with legality

The prominent news channel, NDTV, was raided on June 5 by the Central Bureau of Investigation – a move many have called a witch-hunt against a channel known to be critical of the government. A defamation case has been filed against independent news website The Wire for reporting on alleged financial irregularities of a company owned by the son of the BJP president, Amit Shah. While the Wire asserted that the story used information already in the public domain, the complaint against them has run on the charge of defamation.

Interestingly, the complaint references a 1981 order by the Supreme Court against the tabloid, Blitz, which cleared the paper of defamation charges on account of “acting for the public good”. But in the complaint, this was cited as an example that the press does not enjoy any “special status regarding defamation”.

Defamation has been used in prominent effect by late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, whose party filed over 213 cases in five years. The ensuing chilling effect in Tamil Nadu is well known.

Between the threat of the assassin’s bullet and the government’s limitless legal resources, journalists in India face a chilling effect across the political spectrum. High profile journalists, like Arnab Goswami, are a rarity in that they enjoy ‘Y’ category security. For journalists like Jagendra Singh, there was nothing between him and the men who doused him in kerosene and set him alight beside the provisions of the law.

Press freedom exists in India – in theory. But it is far from being guaranteed.

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