The climate for journalism in India grew steadily adverse in 2017 with a host of perpetrators making reporters and photographers, even editors, their target, media watchdog The Hoot’s “India Freedom Report ~ Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 2017,” released on Friday revealed.
There were murders, attacks, threats, and cases filed against them for defamation, sedition, and internet-related offences, it said.
It was a year in which two journalists were shot at point blank range and killed, and one was hacked to death as police stood by and did not stop the mob, the report said. Statistics compiled by The Hoot show there were 46 attacks, 27 cases of police action including detentions, arrests and cases filed, and 12 cases of threats.
The major perpetrators of the attacks tend to be the police, politicians and political workers, followed by right wing activists and other non-state actors, the report’s section “journalists under attack” said.
These cases included a minister from Uttar Pradesh who threatened to set a journalist on fire, and an MLA from Chirala in Andhra Pradesh and his brother, accused of being behind a brutal attack on a magazine journalist. If RJD leader Lalu Prasad threatened to punch a Republic TV reporter in the face, his son Tejashwi’s guards assaulted reporters and photographers when they arrived at his house to get his reaction to an FIR being lodged against him on corruption charges, the report pointed out.
The report’s section on “Murders” said 11 journalists were murdered in 2017 in India. In only three of these cases, there is a clear linkage with their journalistic work. One murder, that of journalist Gauri Lankesh, took place in Karnataka and two others in Tripura. Gauri was Editor of the Kannada publication Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Till date, no arrest has been made.
Santanu Bhowmick, a journalist from Din Raat news channel, was killed on 20 September, 2017 and several people were wounded in clashes between supporters of two rival tribal associations in Mandwai, about 28 km from the Tripura capital of Agartala. Another journalist was shot dead on 21 November in the same year by personal security officer of a commandant of the Tripura State Rifles. Sudip Datta Bhaumik was a senior journalist with the Syandan Patrika, a leading Bengali newspaper in Agartala, and had gone to meet the local commandant. He had an altercation with the PSO.
In the section “Attacks,” the report said,“the larger evidence of how increasingly vulnerable journalists became emerged from the growing attacks on reporters, photographers and stringers going about their job. In the year under review, 46 attacks were recorded.” In the violence which followed the Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Singh’s arrest in August 2017, the physical vulnerability of the media was on display: TV vans up in flames, a cameraman missing after the violence, and a Punjabi language news channel reporter as well as an NDTV engineer injured in the attacks, the report said.
As television channels bore the brunt of the violence that broke out in Haryana and parts of Delhi after Singh was convicted of rape, I&B minister Smriti Irani tweeted a veiled warning to television channels. She drew attention to Clause B of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority code on spreading panic, distress and undue fear. She was swiftly pilloried on Twitter for that, the report added.
Andhra Pradesh has seen no less than three attacks in February, March and April by the politician-criminal nexus on those reporting on illegal mining and corruption. Stringers are easy targets, the report said.
In Andhra Pradesh, most attacks follow stories on illegal mining, usually where those in power are involved.
Under its section “arrests and police cases against journalists,” the report said there were 13 cases of journalists being interrogated who were later let off, or arrested, or had cases registered against them.
Frontline magazine correspondent Kunal Shankar was held in January for trespassing into the University of Hyderabad and violating the High Court order (barring outsider entry) on the first death anniversary of Rohith Vemula. He was questioned and subsequently released.
In August, the Chandigarh police banned media personnel from entering Sector 26 police station which is investigating the Varnika Kundu stalking case.
ABC Four Corners, an Australian news team, was threatened by the Crime Branch of Gujarat Police in October while it was at Gujarat’s Mundra port to investigate the Adani group. It was forced to leave Gujarat and India.
On actions by legislatures, the report said, in July, the Kashmir Assembly was adjourned after the Opposition raised the issue of unprecedented regulation of the media in covering the special session on GST. The National Conference, Congress and other opposition parties said they would not be part of any proceeding in which media will be deliberately kept away.
On cases of censorship, The Hoot report recalled that in June, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee pulled up the authorities of Shri Shikshayatan, a private girl’s school in Kolkata, for playing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Maan Ki Baat’ for students. She warned the school authorities that such initiatives do not add to knowledge and are merely political initiatives, and no child must be forced to listen to a speech against their choice.
The Hoot recalled cases of “news censorship” including the one on Independence Day, when Manik Sarkar, the chief minister of Tripura found Doordarshan and All India Radio refusing to broadcast the customary Independence Day address he had recorded until he reshaped it. Restricting media access became rather frequent in 2017. The list of governments is long: Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha, Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan. What’s more, political parties also got into the act.
In December, reporters in J&K were “barred” from covering the activities of the Government of India’s special representative Dineshwar Sharma during his maiden visit to the frontier district of Kupwara.
In its section giving state-wise account on the “climate for free speech,” The Hoot report said Kashmir notched up the worst record in India for a population chronically affected by internet shutdowns and for journalists working in difficult, conflict-ridden conditions which included attacks, police actions and threats.
Authored by Sevanti Ninan, The Hoot report recalled the internet-related cases and said Section 66A of the IT Act was “used” during the year, although it had been struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015! In 2017 there were at least 32 cases of action taken on account of internet-related offences.
The Hoot’s documentation showed that 13 arrests were made in the course of the year, in Andhra Pradesh (3), Assam (1), Karnataka (1), Madhya Pradesh 1), Rajasthan (1), Maharashtra (1) Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal (5). In other cases FIRs were lodged against multiple persons and complaints booked. In at least six cases across the country section 66A was still invoked along with other provisions of the law, the report says.