South Asia Media Freedom Round-Up 2020

Geetha Srimathi Sreenivasan

Press freedom in India was widely contested as the government attempted to regulate the functioning of media through arrests, detentions, and restrictive laws. The situation was no better, no worse, in the South Asian neighbours of India.

In a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, which further shook the footing of media all around the world, Indian government curtailed critical coverage of the public health crisis by filing criminal charges against journalists. The government also jailed several journalists, four of whom are still under police custody according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom watchdog.

In Kashmir, incremental restrictions were imposed on the media, following the government’s revocation of the state’s special status in August 2019 and arbitrary raids were carried out in journalists’ homes. Besides the Union government, state governments were also accused of interfering with media freedom. 

The Uttar Pradesh (UP) government filed charges against Supriya Sharma, Editor-in-Chief of the news portal Scroll.in, for her series of reports on the effects of COVID-19 on villages in Varanasi, one of which was adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The UP police also arrested Malayali journalist Siddique Kappan on sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) while on his way to cover the rape and death of a Dailt girl in Hathras village. (

Posting on social media platforms landed two journalists, Prashant Kanojia and Patricia Mukhim, in trouble. While Kanojia was detained for two months over a tweet, Mukhim had an FIR filed against her for a Facebook post. 

Investigation on the death of Parag Bhuyan, an Assam-based journalist who was killed in a hit-and-run, was initiated to the CBI upon pressure from the Editors Guild of India, UNESCO and other press freedom organisations.

In Tamil Nadu, a TV journalist was killed by a gang allegedly for questioning illegal mining.

Kerala proposed an amendment to the section 118 A of the Kerala Police Act, which weakened free speech across all mediums. Upon receiving severe criticism, the Kerala government backtracked on the proposal. 

Throughout the year, journalists continued to face several challenges from non-state actors, vested interests, and corporate entities. 

Pakistan

The arrest of Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, the editor-in-chief of Jang group, the country’s largest media group, over a three-decade-old land deal case was perceived as an attempt to gag independent press. Several notable academics, activists, and human rights organisations called for Rehman’s release. He was granted bail in November, around 200 days after his detention.

Matiullah Jan, a senior journalist known for his fierce criticism of the Pakistani government, was abducted in July from Islamabad by unidentified persons and released hours later, after being “warned” of consequences to his actions.

In November, Pakistan tightened the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act through a new expansion, which outlawed online criticism of the government and required social media platforms to share users’ data with authorities. Big tech players such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter threatened to leave Pakistan over new censorship laws. 

More recently, a journalist was shot dead outside his home by unidentified assailants in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Bangladesh

An increase in cases filed under the draconian Digital Security Act was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Article 19, an international freedom of expression watchdog, reported that there was an “alarming crackdown” on free speech against journalists who criticised the Bangladeshi government. Cases were filed against at least 22 journalists in the first five months of 2020. On May 6, eleven people, including a cartoonist, two journalists and a writer, were charged under the Digital Security Act. 

Shafiqul Islam, a Bangladeshi journalist, went missing in early March, a day after a case was filed under the Digital Security Act against him, and mysteriously turned up in police custody 53 days after his disappearance. Prominent press freedom & human rights organisations called for his release.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s New Media Minister KeheliyaRambukwella, who assured media freedom when he was elected in August, introduced a regulatory framework for websites that was seen as a move to stifle freedom of expression. Activists and mediapersons felt that the proposal, which was similar to Singapore’s controversial Infocomm Media Development Authority Act (IMDA) and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), would control criticism and dissent. 

Government authorities continued to target DharishaBastians, journalist and human rights defender, who was linked to an ongoing investigation of a 2019 Swiss Embassy employee abduction. 

In October, the Sri lankan government passed the 20th amendment to the constitution, which was criticized as a threat to democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression by the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka and human rights lawyers. The amendment enhances the President’s executive powers.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan, named one of the most “deadliest” countries for journalists by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its 2020 Press Freedom Index, saw the death of a number of journalists this year. At least four journalists have been killed since November, raising safety concerns in journalists. The death of reporter ElyasDayee marked the 50th journalist killed in the country since 2001. 

In December, MalalaiMaiwand, a TV anchor, was shot dead along with her driver in eastern Afghanistan. 

On the other hand, the Afghan government introduced amendments to media law, which media companies said would be a setback for independent journalism in the country. The proposed amendment required journalists to reveal their sources to government authorities and was withdrawn after an outcry from the press. 

Myanmar

Myanmar authorities interfered with news coverage by raiding journalists’ homes, and blocking news websites in the country. In March, Nay Myo Lin, Editor-in-Chief, Voice of Myanmar, was arrested under the Terrorism Act for publishing an interview with a rebel army spokesman. 

The Myanmar government continued to suppress reporting on ethnic groups and Rakhine media outlets even after the arrest of two Reuters reporters, who uncovered thePulitzer-winning story on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims and were jailed for over 500 days, received international disapproval. 

Nepal

Yet another South Asian country that passed controversial media bills, posing threats to freedom of expression, was Nepal. After the start of the pandemic, journalists who reported on irregularities in medical supplies, lockdown measures were detained and threatened. 

According to a report published in May by the Freedom Forum, a civil liberty group, there was a slight increase in press freedom violations in 2020. 

BalaramBaniya, a journalist who reportedly covered Chinese encroachment in a Nepal village, was found dead in August. Press unions demanded a fair probe into the case. China also showed its high-handedness by releasing a strongly-worded statement against an article published in The Kathmandu Post criticising China’s response to the pandemic. 

Our top stories of press freedom violations in India:

UP Police file FIR against ‘The Wire’

Media organisations condemn FIR against Scroll.in editor Supriya Sharma

Journalist killed in Uttar Pradesh

J&K press protest against new media policy

Separate incidents of violence against journalists in Delhi and Bengaluru

Press organisations condemn arrest of Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami

Also read:

The Year in Review: Press Freedom

COVID-19 and Shrinking Press Freedom in India

Sri Lanka’s Democracy on the Edge

In Afghanistan, the freedoms of the press are under attack

2020: India emerges as most dangerous country for scribes

National Press Day: Read about journalists who were jailed and killed in India

(Graphics by Geetha Srimathi Sreenivasan)