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Journalism Under Siege: Attacks On Journalists Highlight Democracy's Fragility

The deteriorating state of press freedom in India has raised alarm bells and sparked widespread concerns about the fragility of democracy. Diksha Puri reports for The Probe.

By Diksha Puri
New Update

Press Freedom In India
Press freedom | Representative image | The Probe

In recent years, journalists in India have become increasingly vulnerable to attacks, violence, arrests, and press curbs imposed by the government. The landscape of journalism in the country has been marred by a growing vulnerability that threatens the very essence of a free and independent press. Journalists, who are tasked with the crucial responsibility of uncovering truth, exposing wrongdoing, and informing the public, have found themselves facing a distressing surge in attacks, violence, arrests, and curbs on their ability to report. These disturbing trends have raised serious concerns about the state of press freedom and the broader implications for democracy in the country. One such case involves Akhila Nandakumar, the Chief Reporter of Asianet news channel in Kerala, who recently found herself entangled in a legal battle after being accused of defaming a political leader.

Geeta Seshu, journalist and Co-founder of Free Speech Collective speaks on freedom of the press with The Probe’s Diksha Puri.

Akhila recounts, "I had actually gone to Maharaja College on June 6 to report on another case. The case was regarding a former college student named Vidya, who had allegedly forged a certificate for securing a guest lecture post in Palakkad. On reaching the college, I spoke to the Principal and a teacher there and started doing live reporting on the issue. While doing my live reporting, Kerala Students Union (KSU) activists entered the Principal's room to register their protest".

Akhila adds, "While I understood the need to cover the protest, I decided it wasn't appropriate to continue my live reporting inside the Principal's room. As I stepped out, one of the KSU activists, who was engaged in a heated argument with the Principal, approached me. He spoke of a possible connection between the SFI and the college and raised concerns about the mark list of PM Arsho, a postgraduate Archaeology student and the State General Secretary of the Students Federation of India (SFI). As a visual media reporter doing live coverage, I have limited control over unforeseen events during live reporting. Throughout the live broadcast, I made it clear that these were political allegations and that we needed to hear the other side and examine the facts. Only after the live coverage did I discover that the person who spoke to me was Fazil, the Vice President of KSU's Maharaja College unit. However, soon after the incident, the CPM leaders began accusing me of conspiring with the KSU."

In the aftermath of this incident, an FIR (First Information Report) was registered against Akhila and several others under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including criminal conspiracy, forgery, and defamation. Last Friday, she received a notice from the Crime Branch office demanding her appearance. Akhila has now moved the Kerala High Court, seeking the quashing of the FIR registered against her. Akhila's case is not an isolated incident. Many journalists continue to face attacks and curbs in India for simply doing their duty. 

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The Probe interviewed journalist Kamal Shukla from Chhattisgarh, who continues to face threats and pressure regarding a case he lodged in 2020 against certain political figures. These individuals allegedly assaulted him following his investigation into the political nexus in illegal sand mining in Chhattisgarh.

"There has been a lot of illegal sand mining going on in Chhattisgarh during both the Congress and the BJP government's tenure, and I have been consistently reporting on this," Kamal shares. "The local Congress leaders started threatening me after my report was published in 2020. One of the journalists, Satish Yadav, was beaten up and taken to the police station. This was because he was continuously reporting against the sand mafia. The journalist called me and told me that he was being assaulted. As soon as I heard this, I immediately reached the police station. Many Congress leaders were present there, and they started assaulting me inside the police station itself. The shocking aspect of this is that all this happened in front of the police. Three years have passed since the incident, but so far, the case has not moved forward. They are pressuring me to withdraw my complaint," narrates Kamal, who is the Editor of Bhumikal Samachar Magazine and the head of the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti.

India’s position in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index has declined to 161 out of 180 countries, as reported by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media watchdog. “The declining ranking of India in the World Press Freedom Index is a matter of grave concern. It is disheartening that every time reports are released highlighting India’s poor performance in press freedom, the government dismisses them as targeting India and interfering in internal matters. However, these reports are global in nature and encompass the situation in various countries worldwide. If the government has reservations about the findings, it should present its own data. Interestingly, back in 2014, the government had committed to producing its own data on attacks against journalists. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) published the data for a brief period but then they abruptly stopped it. Instead of discrediting external data, the government should provide its own comprehensive data, which would be the most fitting response. Unfortunately, the government has stopped collecting such data, likely because they know it would reveal alarming statistics,” states Geeta Seshu, journalist and Co-founder of Free Speech Collective.

Seshu says the government frequently employs the sedition law as a means to impose restrictions on the media. She highlights that sedition, a colonial-era law inherited from the British, which was historically used to curtail freedom of expression during the pre-independence era, continues to be used even today to suppress press freedom and freedom of expression.

“In contemporary India, sedition charges are often imposed for trivial and absurd reasons. For instance, a student was charged with sedition simply because he did not stand up for the national anthem in a movie theatre. Another case involved an individual who faced legal action for merely liking a cartoon on Facebook. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has read down the sedition law, it continues to be invoked. Although very few convictions have taken place, the police are still empowered to arrest individuals and detain them without sufficient cause. In such cases, seeking justice is extremely arduous, protracted, and isolating for the accused. The government has also been misusing other draconian laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and even in states, for instance, in Chattisgarh, Acts like the Public Security Act are used to assault press freedom,” notes Seshu.

The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, enacted by the Chhattisgarh assembly in December 2005 and enforced in March 2006, serves as a glaring example of legislation disguised under the pretext of security and protection. However, in reality, it has resulted in heightened repression. 

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The provisions outlined in the CSPSA surpass the severity of even national security laws, granting excessive powers to the police, including the authority to detain individuals based on actions that exhibit a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law.” This legislation is deeply problematic as it enables the arbitrary branding of individuals as threats merely for expressing dissent or engaging in activities that challenge the status quo. According to many senior journalists in the state, this Act is routinely used to intimidate the Press. 

Neeraj Shivhare, a journalist based in Chhattisgarh, found himself facing repercussions after publishing a story on his website, Bastar Ki Awaaz, highlighting the distressing situation of a woman named Mayuri Sharma during the Covid-19 lockdown. The article shed light on Mayuri’s desperate act of selling her refrigerator for a meagre sum of 2000 rupees, as she lacked the financial means to purchase milk for her baby and procure essential supplies.

Shortly after the publication of the story, the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Dantewada CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) visited Mayuri Sharma’s residence and provided her family with a month’s supply of rations. Subsequently, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Dantewada issued a showcause notice to Neeraj, alleging that his article was fake. 

Speaking to The Probe, Neeraj alleges that the authorities pressured Mayuri Sharma’s family excessively to change the narrative. “There was too much pressure on the family not to speak to the Press and change the narrative. They issued a showcause notice to me. Then many journalists rallied behind me and supported me, and following the immense pressure, the government decided not to file an FIR,” explains Neeraj. 

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Journalists in India have not only faced attacks and curbs on their freedom, but some have even paid the ultimate price for simply doing their job. One tragic example of this is the case of journalist Shashikant Warishe in Maharashtra. In February, a shocking incident occurred in Ratnagiri district, where Warishe was mowed down by a car. The police later charged the driver with murder. What makes this case even more concerning is the alleged motive behind the attack.

Warishe had reportedly been involved in exposing the activities of local land dealer Pandharinath Amberkar, who is believed to be a supporter of the proposed Ratnagiri refinery project. Several media organisations had demanded a thorough investigation into the journalist's death, as they believed it was directly linked to his writings against Amberkar.

The deteriorating state of press freedom in India is a cause for great concern, as it threatens democracy. A free and independent press is essential for holding those in power accountable, exposing corruption, and providing the public with unbiased information. When journalists face attacks, violence, and curbs on their freedom, it creates a chilling effect that stifles critical voices and limits the flow of information. This erosion of press freedom weakens the foundation of democracy by impeding transparency, suppressing dissent, and hindering informed decision-making by citizens.