A number of recent developments in India were widely debated from the perspective of media freedom. Although the incidents seemed to happen in isolation, among which some were tied to the ongoing farmer protests along Delhi borders, critics say that together they portray a grim picture of freedom of speech restrictions.
Intimidation of media practitioners and organizations
Amidst coverage of farmer protests at the borders of the national capital, several journalists and media organisations faced FIRs, arrests, and raids in the past few weeks. Senior journalists from prominent media organisations including India Today and The Caravan were slapped with FIRs on charges of sedition for their reportage of the tractor rally that turned violent on January 26.
In another incident, Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist, was detained by the police on January 30 while he was attending a conference by the Kisan Sangharsh Mazdoor Committee, and was subjected to physical assault by the police. Punia was released on bail on February 2.
More recently, the Enforcement Directorate raided the Delhi office of Newsclick, an online news portal, and the residences of its director and journalists for over 30 hours since the morning of February 9. The raids, conducted for alleged money laundering, were condemned by several press and media freedom watch dogs such as the Editors Guild of India, Press Club of India, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
These developments, especially the sedition cases against almost a dozen journalists, raised questions on the extent of free press in the country. A recent newsletter by BOOM, a fact-checking website, said, “these journalists in the past week were slapped with sedition cases just for their disagreement with the official line.”
An article in Guardian argued that the police cases filed in succession cannot be a mere coincidence and that these legal actions have a clear aim of muzzling free press. “If honest reporting from the ground can be treated as “sedition” then there may soon be little serious journalism left in India.”
Read the Media Buddhi newsletter by BOOM here.
Read the Guardian article here.
‘Regulating’ Social Media
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, on January 26, issued several separate blocking orders to Twitter under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. The orders, which included blocking of around 250 accounts, were partially and temporarily carried out by Twitter.
Shortly after Twitter responded to the Indian government saying, “Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” the government issued a notice warning Twitter of legal action.
An analysis on the Twitter block order by The Wire pointed out two issues with the government’s notice. One, the tweets under contention do not attract Section 69A provisions. And two, there is a need for greater transparency with regard to Section 69A blocking orders.
Meanwhile, an editorial in The Hindu stated, “while provocative posts have no place on any platform, free speech should not be hit.” However, the article also said that the hashtag (#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide) that the government wanted blocked was “not merely distasteful but also problematic, and indefensible on the grounds of freedom of speech.”
Read The Wire’s analysis here.
Read The Hindu’s editorial here.
Internet shutdowns and revocations
High-speed internet has been frequently suspended in most areas near Delhi and Haryana borders – the farmer protest sites – since January 26, cutting off access to information for the protestors. This also proved to be difficult for journalists to relay reports from the field.
Protestors and journalists had to travel miles away from the protest sites to get network connectivity and news updates. Groups of farmers, however, reportedly managed to get around the internet block through distributing newspapers, setting up loudspeakers on tractors, using WiFi from local residents, and so on.
An article in the Mumbai Mirror, referring to a research paper, pointed out that shutdowns could actually make a crisis worse by amplifying dangerous speech and rumours. The central point of the article was that regular shutdowns go against the modern vision of digital India and our founding idea of constitutional, rights-respecting democracy. “It is irreconcilable that the world’s largest democracy can allow for internet shutdowns to be regularly ordered with an absence of any direct judicial oversight of these extraordinary powers.”
On February 7, Kashmir was restored with 4G internet 18 months after it was cut in August 2019. An analysis in The Kashmir Walla questioned who will be held accountable for the largest, undemocratic denial of access to the internet, which was a “collective punishment of people denied free access to the internet for what can only be described as thoughtcrimes.”
Even as the internet was being restored after more than a year, mobile internet was said to have been completely shut off in the southern districts of Kashmir.
According to a report, India totaled 400 internet lockdowns in the last four years.
Read the Mumbai Mirror article here.
Read the Kashmir Walla analysis here.
Freedom of Speech
Munawar Faruqui, a stand-up comedian, was arrested along with four others in Madhya Pradesh, for “insulting Hindu deities” in his jokes that he was yet to perform. Faruqui was released on bail more than a month after he was arrested on January 1.
The complainant, the son of a local BJP MP, had“overheard his rehearsal jokes” and interrupted the show minutes after it began. The arrest was seen as arbitrary, as there was no clear reason behind the detention of others, who are yet to receive bail.
Faruqui’s first bail plea was rejected on January 5.
A TIME article detailed the slippery slope that Indian comedians tread upon these days. “Faruqui’s arrest is another example of the majoritarian wave sweeping India. A hardline group attacked him without provocation. Then the police, whose only evidence comes from a contested claim, took him to jail. Finally, the lower courts repeatedly denied him bail, which is commonly granted under trials in India, despite what seemed to be the absence of reasonable grounds to believe he had committed an offense,” said the article.
Recently, a political web series on Amazon Prime Video called “Tandav”, came under legal fire for “hurting religious sentiments” in one scene. Referring to this, and Faruqui’s bail rejection, an editorial in The Indian Express wrote about the courts’ role in shrinking space for free speech – “In the frequent run-ins between religious belief and the freedom of speech and expression, the balance appears to be tipping away from constitutional freedom, and the courts are showing quiescence or complicity in this process.”
Read the TIME article here.
Read the Indian Express editorial here.