Image courtesy of Randeep Maddoke
Indian police last week arrested several journalists on charges of sedition and communal disharmony in what critics have decried as a new government push to curtail free speech during recent protests by Indian farmers.
On Feb. 2 at least nine journalists were arrested and criminally charged for reporting on the protests. Indian authorities claimed the journalists were reporting misinformation about the death of a young protestor, Navreet Singh, who died during the protests.
The protests began last fall in opposition to three new laws that will loosen regulations on the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce. The laws have been hailed by the Indian government as much needed reforms, but some farmers have insisted the changes were ill-conceived and could allow wealthy private buyers to exploit them.
Two weeks ago, the protests in New Delhi turned violent when a planned demonstration on Republic Day, a national holiday commemorating the signing of India’s constitution, went awry as some protesters broke through police barricades and rode tractors into the city ahead of the schedule approved by authorities. In the aftermath of clashes between protesters and police, at least 19 people were treated at local hospitals and 86 police officers were injured.
While authorities claimed that Singh died from injuries sustained from his tractor flipping over, a postmortem report indicates that he sustained a gunshot to the head, according to The Guardian. Journalists who published stories about the alleged fatal gunshot wound or have shared the stories on social media have had criminal cases filed against them in five states.
The Editors Guild of India condemned the moves by Indian authorities in a statement, saying that the journalists who have been detained were doing their duty as journalists and trying to “report all the details that emerged.”
The Editors Guild of India condemns the intimidating manner in which UP and MP police have registered FIRs against senior journalists, for reporting on farmers’ protests in Delhi on Jan 26. EGI finds these FIRs as an attempt to intimidate, harass, and stifle free media. pic.twitter.com/Mf3albnYvs— Editors Guild of India (@IndEditorsGuild) January 29, 2021
“This targeting of journalists grievously violates and tramples on every value that our democratic republic stands for,” said the Editors Guild. “It is intended to grievously hurt the media and prevent it from working as an independent watchdog of Indian democracy.”
The police arrested the journalists by issuing First Information Reports (FIR), which are information documents filed by authorities that allow them to arrest individuals without a warrant. The Editors Guild urged authorities to revoke the FIRs.
“We demand that the FIRs be withdrawn immediately and the media be allowed to report without fear and with freedom,” the Editors Guild said in the press statement.
Baijayant Panda, the national vice president of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the arrested journalists were reporting with the “intent of fanning violence” in an interview with the BBC.
“This was not just blatant peddling of a false narrative, but one that had real and imminent potential to inflame large-scale violence,” he said. “The said journalist and others of his ilk have also had a pattern of promoting such false narratives on earlier instances, and in fact have had to apologise on the record after being taken to court by affected parties.”
The sedition law the journalists were charged with breaking, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, makes it illegal to incite hatred or contempt towards the Indian government, and if broken, perpetrators can face life in prison.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the farmers’ protests “should be heard, not punished” by Indian authorities and that “citizens have a right to oppose govt policy.”
“Declining media freedom in #India. 8 journalists face baseless criminal cases including sedition, promoting communal disharmony, making statements prejudicial to national integration, for reporting allegations of rights abuses during,” Ganguly said in a tweet last week.
Discrediting peaceful protests again. Why is it that Indian authorities are unwilling to accept that citizens have the right to oppose govt policy, and that they should be heard, not punished. The ‘foreign hand’ claim is so last century. https://t.co/S700t0YQ4a— meenakshi ganguly (@mg2411) January 17, 2021
In 2020, India slipped two places on the Freedom of Press Index published by Reporters Without Borders and has been on a steady decline since 2017. RSF attributes the decline, in large part, to the Hindu nationalist movement led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP. The movement has pressured Indians to “purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought,” and as a result has limited journalists’ ability to speak out, RSF wrote on their website.
A study by independent journalist Geeta Seshu found that 154 journalists were arrested, detained or interrogated by Indian authorities between 2010 and 2020. Of that number, 67 cases were filed last year and 73 cases were filed in states governed by the BJP.
There is still no timeline for the journalists’ release but Ganguly hopes it will be soon. “Indian authorities should be releasing activists and others already jailed or facing criminal charges in politically motivated cases, not adding to that list,” she said.
The Ministry of Electronics and IT recently directed Twitter to block several accounts that were reporting on the Indian farmer protests. The blocked accounts included The Caravan, a magazine and staunch critic of the Indian government.
The accounts have since been unblocked, though not before employees of Twitter’s Indian division were threatened with legal consequences for not removing tweets the government described as “misinformation” and said could “lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country.”