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#FreePrashantNow: What Modi 2.0 Means For Press Freedom In India

Within a fortnight of PM Modi's re-election, four journalists have been arrested and two others have been shot at.

Uttar Pradesh police arrested Delhi-based independent journalist Prashant Kanojia on June 7 for posting a cheeky comment on the video of a woman who reached Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence with a “love letter” and claimed that she has been talking to the CM via “video conferencing” for one year and demanded an in-person meeting. Uttar Pradesh police picked Kanojia up from his residence in Delhi. 

A day later, Ishita Singh, the head of TV News channel Nation Live and Anuj Shukla, the editor, were also picked up by U.P. police for a comment made by a panellist during a debate show on the same topic. They have also been charged with operating without a license.

On the same day, two ABP journalists were reportedly shot at by bike-borne assailants on Delhi’s Barapullah flyover.

Three days ago, 33-year-old Rupesh Kumar Singh, a social activist and independent journalist, along with Mithilesh Kumar Singh, a social activist and lawyer at Ramgarh Civil Court, and his driver, Mohammad Kalam, were arrested with explosives from Dobhi More at NH-2, near Sherghati, around 30 km from Gaya. The following day, a unit of the Bihar Police searched Rupesh’s house in Ramgarh and Bokaro, and seized his mobile phone, laptop and some “Naxal literature” — a few books on Lenin, Marx etc. Speaking to Newslaundry, Rupesh’s wife Ipsa said that he had been arrested for working on Dalit and tribal issues and that the police is trying to implicate him in a false case.

These back-to-back incidents come within a fortnight of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and PM Modi’s re-election following the 2019 polls. The last five years of the party’s rule has seen a severe deterioration of press freedoms — co-ordinated online harassment campaigns against journalists critical of the government; TV anchors, editors losing their jobs; murders; and news channels, journalists openly pushing fake news and the ruling party’s propaganda. The arrests and the attack are only further links in this chain. 

Also read: ‘Freedom Of The Press, If It Means Anything At All, Means The Freedom To Criticise And Oppose’: 10 Quotes To Remember on World Press Freedom Day

India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index fell from 138 in 2018 to 140 in 2019. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the media watchdog that prepares the index annually, noted, “Attacks against journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased in the run-up to general elections in the spring of 2019. Those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate.” The analysis also notes that at least six journalists were killed in 2019 alone.

Press Freedom in India is facing a serious threat in other insidious ways. Sevanti Ninan, the founder of The Hoot, notes in an article, which details how the media landscape changed since 2014,  the multiple instances of self-censorship by media houses in the last five years. “…several prominent news outlets took down their published articles on the post-demonetisation bank deposits in an Ahmedabad-based bank in which BJP President Amit Shah was a director….. The election of Amit Shah as BJP president in 2014 had also seen voluntary takedowns. The Mumbai daily DNA first published a piece on his past record titled “A new low in Indian politics” and then removed it. And Quartz reported on July 16, 2014, that after Shah’s election, CNN IBN’s bulletin at night, as well as the graphics on air, were edited to remove references to the criminal charges faced by him.”

“Since May 2014 when this government came to power, the 404 error page on media websites is showing up rather more frequently than before,” she wrote.

RSF’s Media Ownership Monitor details political control over major media houses in India. “Within the sample of this study, as many as ten media owners have direct or indirect links with politics while some of them even represent a political party. There are countless others, however, who have refused to declare their political affiliations, but yet own media companies. Between them, media owners with political links control a sizeable share of viewership/readership.”

Freedom House’s report Freedom and the Media 2019: A Downward Spiral, lists other ways in which authoritarian governments strangle the press:

Freedom and the media: A downward spiral
Credits: Freedom House

“The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has supported campaigns to discourage speech that is “anti-national,” and government-aligned thugs have raided critical journalists’ homes and offices. The media have become widely flattering of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won reelection last month, amid allegations that the government issues directives on how the press should cover his activities and intimidates journalists who push back. The government has also been selective in the allocation of television licenses, effectively excluding unfriendly outlets from the airwaves,” the report notes.

Also read: World Press Freedom Index 2019: India’s Ranking Falls From 138 to 140

“Arbitrary tax invasions”, sounds familiar? In 2017, the CBI raided the offices of NDTV and the homes of its founder, Prannoy Roy. Similarly, on June 7, 2019, the Enforcement Directorate filed a money laundering case against Raghav Bahl, founder of the web news portal The Quint. In October 2018, the IT Department had raided Bahl’s offices and homes. Currently, The Quint is one of the few media outlets covering the story of the dodgy data of EVM votes polled and counted in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

The recent arrests show how the government is tightening its grip on the media further, the consequences of which may be disastrous for the Indian democracy. Speaking up against the government already comes with consequences — threats, intimidation, and now, punitive action. If one comment on social media starts translating into jail time for people, how long before people stop speaking up entirely?

The press is known as the fourth pillar of democracy because it does the job of holding the government accountable and uphold the interests of the public. With the media under threat, it is imperative for the people to raise their voice today; and they are.

The hashtag #FreePrashantNow, in solidarity with the detention of Prashant Kanojia, has been trending on Twitter. Journalists, activists, political figures have all been raising their voice against the ruling party’s vice grip on press freedom.

The Editors Guild of India, a body that is usually silent on many a transgression against press freedom, felt compelled to condemn these attacks on journalists.

There’s a common theme to what every one of them is saying: Speak up before it is too late.

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