The country was jolted out of sleep in the early hours of Wednesday morning when famous TV personality Arnab Goswami was picked up from his residence by the Maharashtra Police and arrested in connection with a 2018 suicide case.
Minutes after the news of Goswami’s arrest broke – with Republic TV playing and replaying visuals of their editor-in-chief being forced out of his apartment – a string of Union ministers and other important figures started lashing out at the Maharashtra government for what they called “an attack on press freedom”.
Urging the “free press” to stand in support of him, Union Minister Smriti Irani directed a sharp question towards those who may refuse to do so: “Who speaks if you are next?” Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that Goswami’s arrest “reminds us of Emergency”, and promised that this attack on free press “WILL BE OPPOSED”.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on his part, too, tweeted against this alleged onslaught on press freedom.
But this is not the first time that press freedom has been under attack in the country, or that “shades of the emergency” have been spotted.
A Spate of Recent Attacks on Journalists From Kashmir...
Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photojournalist was booked under UAPA amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her fault? A social media post she had written years ago that the police claimed was “anti-national”.
Commenting on the case against Zahra, Kashmir Times journalist Anuradha Bhasin told The Quint that the “fallout of this would be that many young women who have come into the profession in the last one decade and are doing some great job will be pushed to the corner.”
In a strange development, Anuradha, too, found herself subjected to what she referred to as an “intimidation” tactic. On 19 October, authorities pulled down the shutter of her Kashmir Times office – a local daily of which Bhasin was an executive editor. Bhasin told BBC that she was given no reason for the eviction, and no prior noticef
Irfan Amin Malik, reportedly one of the first journalists to have been detained post abrogation of Article 370, on Wednesday, recounted his detention in a piece for The Wire and wrote:
“I recalled his (my friend’s) repeated advice to me, to leave journalism. He would always warn me that fair journalism is a tough job in a place like Kashmir. “Irfan, you are writing freely but remember free media does not exist in Kashmir,” he had said. Each time a report of mine would be published, I would remember this line.”
And from the Rest of the Country...
While it is true that press freedom in Kashmir is merely a thin, transparent veil, other states of the country have been smothered by serious attacks on free voice, too.
Kerala’s Siddique Kappan, a freelance journalist based out of Delhi, was en route to Hathras to cover the aftermath of the gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl, when he was picked up the Uttar Pradesh Police. The police claimed that he had links with the Popular Front of India (PFI) and slapped the UAPA. Entire press cubs rallied behind Kappan, with multiple assertion of the charges being absolutely false. Kappan still languishes in jail. His guilt, however, is yet to be established.
Independent journalist Prashant Kanojia has been arrested twice in the past two years by the Uttar Pradesh Police for social media posts.
Manipur’s Kishore Chandra Wangkhem has been in prison for over a month now. He was arrested for responding to a viral social media post made by a “high-profile” BJP politician’s wife, according to Outlook.
The politician’s wife’s post, reported Outlook, was in response to an allegedly derogatory comment about her made by a woman close to her husband. The police has not acted against the woman who had made the ‘offensive’ comment in the first place, alleges Kishore’s wife; Kishore, however, is still awaiting bail.
This is his second arrest, the first one, reportedly, being in April 2019 after he had criticised the chief minister of his state.
On 7 May, Newslaundry published “A list of Indian journalists booked, arrested, assaulted during the lockdown” and wrote “Uttar Pradesh alone has booked eight journalists”.
The article also, however, talks about Andrew Sam Raja Pandian who was arrested on 23 April in Coimbatore after, SimpliCity, the website he founded, reported “on the challenges faced by healthcare workers battling the coronavirus outbreak as well as corruption at a Public Distribution System outlet”. Pandian was subsequently granted bail by a local court after he paid a bond for Rs 10,000.
Newslaundry also wrote about the ordeal of the following journalists (among others):
- Damodharan, after he recorded staff at a Primary Health Centre giving medicines to patients without a doctor’s prescription
- Ashwani Saini and Jasveer Thakur, after they reported on lockdown violation at brick kilns in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi, which authorities claimed was “fake news”
- Hindi daily Divya Himachal’s Om Sharma, after he did a Facebook Live reporting a dearth of ration supply for the homeless in Solan’s Baddi tehsil. The police alleged the content of his Facebook live was also “false”
Being a Journalist in India in 2020
There have been many more and much worse cases of assault on free speech. A study released in 2019 called ‘Getting Away with Murder’ documents the issue of press freedom in India in great detail, and finds out that since 2014, there have been more than 200 serious attacks on journalists in India. The study also showed at least 40 killings of journalists, 21 of which were directly linked to their professional work. Seven journalists were reported to be killed in 2019 alone.
Convictions in the killing of journalists are near-zero. Of over 30 killing of journalists since 2010, there were only three convictions.
India has, since 2016, consistently been slipping in press freedom rankings, going from 133 to 142 in four years.
(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs.)