Where Does Press Freedom Stand in the Age of Contempt, Defamation?
Here’s why India is one of the most unsafe places for journalists.
(This story has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark World Press Freedom Day. It was first published on 2 May 2019)
World Press Freedom Day is the perfect opportunity to revisit an appalling statistic. According to the Press Freedom Index 2019, out of 180 countries, India is ranked 140. In fact, India is more dangerous for a journalist than Afghanistan and Sudan.
When it came to the attack on free press, in the last one year, two incidents stand out: the assassination of journalist Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar and the fine imposed by the division bench of Meghalaya High Court on The Shillong Times in a criminal contempt case.
On 14 June 2018, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir left the office in the evening. Soon after, he was shot by three unidentified gunmen. Bukhari and his two bodyguards were killed on the spot. It was the last day of the holy month of Ramzan. It has been almost a year, and yet no one knows who killed Bukhari.
“He was not an editor. He was like a family head. He was a reporter’s editor.”Mansoor Peer, Reporter, Rising Kashmir
‘When judges judge for themselves’ – this was the headline of a news report in The Shillong Times on 10 December 2018. It was about the perks and facilities sought by judges for themselves and their families post retirement.
On 9 March 2019, the Division Bench of the Meghalaya High Court fined the editor and the publisher of The Shillong Times for criminal contempt for putting out the report. The court also said The Shillong Times would be banned if the fine was not paid.
“Before the judgment, we were asked to appear in court eight times. And each time we were berated, humiliated. The first time, I was asked what is my qualification. When I told him [the judge] BA (Hons) and B.Ed, he said, ‘You are not fit to be a journalist. You are not fit to be an editor,’. He pointed at the publishers and said, ‘You people should also be behind bars for appointing her,’. Eventually, it was just harassment and humiliation.”Patricia Mukhim, Editor, The Shillong Times.
The Shillong Times is one of the oldest newspapers in the Northeast. It started as a weekly tabloid in 1945. For the time being, the Supreme Court of India has stayed the Meghalaya High Court judgment against The Shillong Times.
“All of us are doing self-regulation. You feel a sense of oppression because you can’t say what you need to say. Contempt of court and criminal defamation are the only two things that obstruct freedom of expression.Patricia Mukhim, Editor, The Shillong Times.
Shujaat Bukhari was putting out three newspapers – Rising Kashmir, Buland Kashmir, and Sangarwal. For the last decade or so, the newspapers were published even when the ad revenues were not sufficient enough. Shujaat Bukhari and his team of journalists didn’t compromise on their independent journalism.
“We are not getting any DAVP ads for the last 10 years. For the last 10 years, we have suffered losses of crores of rupees. Threats have intensified now. It’s unsaid, unwritten. No official orders are passed. In 2016, during the uprising post Burhan Wani’s killing, there was no order by the government but they locked the printing press.”Faisul Yasin, AssociateEditor, Rising Kashmir
The picture is not all that bleak. The good thing is that there are people in India, people who are not journalists, who think that the freedom of press is precious, and it needs to be protected. After the judgment against The Shillong Times, civil society Meghalaya People’s Committee to Defend Free Press and Freedom of Expression started a crowd funding campaign. To raise the money for the court imposed fine.
“They said that The Shillong Times may be able to afford the fine. People of Meghalaya themselves have to support press freedom by pooling their resources, so that this case can be fought. And if there is some money left in future also, if there are such cases, it will be fought on public funds.”Patricia Mukhim, Editor, The Shillong Times.
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