"Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose."
– George Orwell, British author
According to the India Press Freedom Report 2021 released by Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) in February this year, at least six journalists were killed, and 108 journalists and 13 media houses were targeted in the country in 2021 alone.
Two journalists each were killed in 2021 in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while both Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra reported one death each.
Of the total 121 targeted, at least 34 faced attacks from political parties, activists, and mafias in their respective states.
The highest number of journalists targeted (25) was in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, followed closely by Uttar Pradesh, with 23.
Also, in 2021, at least 24 journalists were allegedly attacked physically, threatened, harassed, and obstructed from doing their job by state officials across the country. Seventeen of the 24 were thrashed by the police, with J&K reporting the highest number of police beatings.
First Information Reports (FIRs) were lodged against 44 journalists in 2021, including multiple FIRs against some of them in different states, the report added. UP topped the list with nine FIRs, followed by six in both J&K and Delhi.
State organisations like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Income Tax Department also raided the offices of media houses, like Newslaundry, Dainik Bhaskar, Bharat Samachar, and NewsClick, for critical reportage of the ruling government.
Speaking to The Quint about the abysmal state of the country's media freedom delineated by the India Press Freedom Report 2021, Patricia Mukhim, a Meghalaya-based journalist and editor of Shillong Times, said, "If journalists cannot report what the government is doing wrong, then what is our role?"
Mukhim also spoke about the harassment meted out to journalists in the country, including the financial burden that long-drawn legal battles tend to impose, saying that journalists have to be very careful about what they write or say "for the simple reason that going to court is so expensive."
She also added that a large number of media houses were toeing the line of the government, and emphasised that only a few media houses were trying to uphold press freedom.
41 Journalists Murdered in India Since 1992: CPJ
Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that 41 journalists had been murdered in India since 1992, with 18 of them killed in the last eight years alone.
One of the most shocking and brutal murders was that of Bengaluru-based journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was gunned down outside her residence in September 2017 by Hindu extremists because of her vocal criticism against Hindutva.
In a similar case, senior journalist and editor of Rising Kashmir Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead by 3-4 armed assailants in Srinagar in June 2018. Many believe that it was his outspoken nature regarding the conflict in Kashmir that led to his death.
In November 2020, Rakesh Singh, a journalist working for a local Hindi newspaper named Rashtriya Swaroop, died of burn injuries after his house was set ablaze in UP's Balrampur district. The police said that Singh was killed because of his critical reportage of the village head ahead of a local election.
In another incident in UP, a stringer for the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran named Rajesh Mishra was shot dead in October 2017 in the state's Ghazipur district. The police stated that the alleged killers were a part of a gang, whom Mishra had accused of illegal sand-mining and alcohol trafficking.
7 Undertrial Journalists Languishing in Prison; 4 Under UAPA
It also reported that five journalists in India, arrested in or before 2021, were still languishing in prison. Two more, Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul, were arrested in 2022. Coincidentally, all of them are undertrials, i.e., not a single one of them has been convicted of the crime(s) they were charged with yet.
Four of the seven have been slapped with the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
Seema Chishti, a Delhi-based journalist, told The Quint that what happened with journalists today was what would eventually happen with the rest of the country.
"If you are not able to speak your mind, it creates a chilling effect. It signals to other journalists, and then to comedians, movie stars, and other sections of society that they should essentially shut up and not criticise the government," Chishti asserted.
She also said that a press card, which at one time was considered more than enough to guarantee a journalist's safety, might have the opposite effect today and put a journalist in harm's way instead. "In an age of extremely fractured media, the press card has become something that all journalists would think twice about before showing in any situation," she said.
Aasif Sultan, a journalist of J&K's Kashmir Narrator magazine was taken into custody by the police on 27 August 2018, for charges under the UAPA.
The then state government accused Sultan of having ties with the dreaded militant group Hizbul Mujahideen. This comes after Sultan wrote an article in the Kashmir Narrator on slain militant Burhan Wani, which included interviews of "non-combatant" members of the terror group.
The UP Police arrested Kerala-based freelance journalist Siddique Kappan, along with three activists, on 5 October 2020, under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 153A (promoting enmity between groups), 295A (outraging religious feelings), and 124A (sedition). He was also booked under terror charges of the UAPA.
Kappan was taken into custody while on the way to UP's Hathras to report on the alleged gangrape and murder of a Dalit woman there. He is lodged in a jail in UP's Mathura.
Rajeev Sharma, a freelance journalist, was arrested by the Delhi Police in July 2020 on the charge of committing espionage for the Chinese government, and was accused of violating the Official Secrets Act.
He was granted bail and released in December 2020. However, the ED later arrested him in July 2021 on charges under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
Tanveer Warsi, the editor of a Hindi-language newspaper in Madhya Pradesh named Prabhat Sanket, was arrested in Bhopal on 22 July 2021, on the charge of illegally running a daily newspaper without the government's approval, among other alleged crimes.
Warsi had alleged that the state was targeting him for his critical reportage concerning the administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Rajgarh.
Another freelance journalist named Manan Dar was taken into custody by the J&K Police in October 2021 and was formally arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the charge of being associated with terrorist organisations. The NIA claimed that Dar's job in the terror groups included radicalising and recruiting Muslims in J&K to undertake terror activities.
Dar has also been charged under the UAPA for conspiring, both "physically and in cyberspace," and planning terror strikes in the erstwhile state. He is currently being held in Delhi's Tihar Jail.
Fahad Shah, editor of news portal The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on 4 February this year for allegedly sharing social media posts with "anti-national" content.
Shah, who is the recipient of the 25th Human Rights Press Award, currently has four cases lodged against him, three of which come under the UAPA. He was granted bail in two of the cases against him, but later, on 14 March, he was charged under the Public Security Act (PSA), which allows authorities to detain a person without conviction for a period of up to two years.
Sajad Gul, a trainee journalist at The Kashmir Walla, was arrested on 6 January this year under charges of criminal conspiracy. Gul had posted a video of a family shouting anti-India slogans and protesting against the killing of Salim Parray, who was allegedly a Lashkar-e-Taiba commander.
On 16 January, Gul was booked under the Public Safety Act, in which a person can be detained for a period of three to six months without trial.
Being a Muslim Journalist in India
Lucknow-based independent journalist Alishan Jafri, who reports on hate crimes and communal violence in India, told The Quint about his experiences as a Muslim reporter working in India.
"Muslims journalists in India who are doing the kind of work I do are extending their bodies to bear witness to excruciating violence that is directed at their existence," he said.
Jafri cited the example of another Muslim journalist named Akhlad Khan, who died of a heart attack last month at the age of 28. "It was his second heart attack," Jafri said, adding, "He was going through immense pain and anxiety because of his work."
Speaking on safeguards required to promote press freedom, Jafri said that if more people, especially from marginalised communities, get the opportunity to write stories freely, along with the required resources and mentorship, the media would become a more democratic space.