Cases of Media Intimidation on the Rise in India

Protests in Kashmir, India
Photojournalists working as protestors throw stones at security forces in disputed Jammu and Kashmir, India. Photo: Raqib Hameed Naik, The Globe Post

NEW DELHI, India – On a September evening, a senior journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh had just stepped out of her car to open the gates of her house in the Indian city of Bangaluru, when she was fired upon by unidentified men who killed her on the spot.

Ms. Lankesh was the editor of Karnataka state’s weekly tabloid – Lankesh Patrika. She was known for her anti-establishment writing and her strong opposition to the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as its ideologue Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates. The murder was alleged to be the handiwork of right-affiliated groups.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Karnataka Police, which is probing the case, has barely made any progress in putting the culprits behind bars, even though eight weeks have passed since the gruesome murder.

Two weeks after Ms. Lankesh’s death, another journalist, Santanu Bhowmick, was kidnapped. He worked at a local news channel in northeastern Tripura state and was covering the agitation by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). Later, Mr. Bhowmick’s dead body was found with wounds from stabbing.

According to a report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), India and Pakistan share the second place in the Asia Pacific region when it comes to reporters’ murders. In 2016, five journalists were killed in both countries. Afghanistan tops the chart with 13 deaths.

In a similar report by IFJ on the number of journalists and media staff killed from 1990-2015, India is placed 7th, with 95 deaths. Reporters Without Borders ranked India 136th out of 180 countries in their World Press Freedom Index for 2017.

On September 21 and 22, while the murder of Ms. Lankesh was still widely discussed in the national media, Debobrat Ghose, chief reporter at the Firstpost news website, received a message and calls from unknown numbers with death threats. He was asked to stop writing articles critical of the RSS, BJP and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even though Mr. Ghose filed a complaint with the police, no one has been arrested yet.

“The last three years of BJP rule has done tremendous harm to the institution of the press in the country,” Afroz Alam Sahil, New Delhi-based investigative journalist and Right to Information activist, told The Globe Post. “The journalists are feeling threatened to cover anti-establishment stories. Even I received a Whatsapp message from some unknown cell number in September threatening me with dire consequences, if I don’t put a halt to the criticism of BJP policies.”

In a similar case, Ravish Kumar, a news anchor at New Delhi Television Limited (NDTV) channel, received death threats on his Whatsapp for airing stories unfavorable to the ruling BJP and his criticism of RSS.

AltNews.in, an anti-propaganda and fact-checking website, investigated people behind the threats the television anchor received and found out that the person who threatened the journalist was a BJP supporter followed by Prime Minister Modi on Twitter.

The report led to an outcry in India, with people asking the prime minister to unfollow so-called trolls. In protest, a number of people unfollowed Mr. Modi’s twitter account.

On October 2, Indian award-winning Bollywood actor Prakash Raj questioned the silence of the prime minister on the death of Ms. Lankesh. Calling Mr. Modi a greater actor than him, Mr. Raj asked why the prime minister had shut his eyes and followed people who celebrated the murder of the journalist.

The fear among journalists reporting on minorities and marginalized groups has also become quite visible.

“I work for a news website which reports on minorities and marginalized groups,” Amit Kumar, a news editor at TwoCircles.net, told The Globe Post. “Many times I have to keep my affiliation secret while reporting to avoid any untoward incident from happening.”

In August 2016, Mr. Kumar was heckled and assaulted while covering a Dalit protest rally in Gujarat.

India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has reported 142 cases of attacks on journalists in 2014-2015 across the country.

In March 2016, Prabhat Singh who works for Patrika, a Hindi-language daily newspaper in Dantewada area of Chhattisgarh state, was arrested by the police. Authorities alleged that he made obscene comments in a private WhatsApp group. Mr. Singh was released from jail, but after three months have passed.

“It has become more like a police state. You can’t do anything in here without their permission. Police try to control every movement of journalists,” Mr. Singh told The Globe Post. “Police have been killing people in fake encounters, raping tribal women’s and if we report it then, we are either harassed or charged with false cases.”

Mr. Singh says that the increase in attacks on the press has grown manifold after politician Raman Singh led BJP to power in the state in 2003.

The attacks on the press are not limited to threats, harassments, prison terms and physical injuries. They have also included defamations and forced newspapers to take down articles.

On October 8, an Indian news portal The Wire published an investigative report about a company owned by the son of BJP President Amit Shah, Jay. The turnover of the firm, called Temple Enterprise Private, which is engaged in wholesale trade of agricultural products, increased 16,000 times the year after Prime Minister Modi assumed office.

Jay Shah filed a criminal defamation case against the news portal, which is run by a non-profit foundation and depends largely on individual donations.

The Delhi Union of Journalists and the National Alliance of Journalists have condemned the defamation case, calling it not only an assault on the press but also a direct assault on constitutional democracy itself.

In September, Times of India had to take down a news report critical of Mr. Modi’s Crop Insurance Scheme, known as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. The piece disappeared abruptly within hours of publishing as it reportedly didn’t go well with the BJP leadership.

Federal investigation agencies, like Central Bureau of Investigation, intimidate those media outlets that don’t follow the official line. In June, the house and offices of television executives Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, co-founders of news channel NDTV, known for its balanced reporting, were raided in connection with loans taken by the channel.

The station called the CBI raid an attempt to silence the media.

“BJP has been intimidating media, whenever they are in power. From Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Narendra Modi, press freedom has always taken a backseat during their rule,” Ajit Sahi, a journalist and civil liberties activist, told The Globe Post.

According to Gowhar Geelani, a Kashmir-based journalist and former editor at Deutsche Welle, with a few exceptions, many of India’s electronic media outlets have allowed themselves to be used for BJP government propaganda.

“There are numerous examples wherein media houses have been asked to behave or bend. Most have crawled and followed government’s diktat while others have indulged in self-censorship to play safe,” Mr. Geelani told The Globe Post. “Also, there have been threats and raids and also killings of a few journalists. ”

“Successive governments in New Delhi have also stopped advertisements as ‘punishment’ to some media houses accused of not toeing government’s line or promoting the alleged ‘separatist’ content. Kashmir is a case in point. More often there have been bans, gags, and curbs on media houses, even one Srinagar-based newspaper was not allowed to publish for a while on flimsy grounds last year,” he added.

Mr. Geelani feels that media outlets in India are facing tremendous challenges when it comes to protecting the institution of free speech.

“Biggest challenge that journalists in India face at present is whether they want to become stenographers of the ruling government or act as watchdogs of society, whether they want to be propagandists bothered about the TRPs [Television Rating Points] and corporate interests or become the voice of the voiceless, marginalized, dispossessed and underdogs,” he said.

“Another challenge is about the trust that people pose in media, if that trust is lost in the absence of credibility, integrity and journalistic ethics, the battle is already lost,” he added.

In October, the Central Home Ministry issued an advisory to the states on the safety of journalists, asking local authorities to investigate the cases of attacks promptly and ensure that criminals get prosecuted in a time-bound manner.

The ministry said the press, which is also called the Fourth Estate, or the fourth power, is an important part of democracy, and it is the duty of the state to ensure safety and security of the journalists. Authorities advised states to take the preventive and protective measures required.