openIndia: Opinion

India is turning to colonial-era laws to silence journalists

Sedition charges are just the latest attempt by Narendra Modi’s government to undermine a free press. They must be opposed. 

Samar Halarnkar
3 February 2021, 10.16am
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never taken questions at a press conference.
PA Images

“A journalist must run the risk of being misunderstood, and should take care to make his meaning plain. If his intentions are really loyal, there can be no difficulty in doing so. If not, he cannot complain of being punished.” That was how a senior British colonial official, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, defended India’s sedition laws in 1898. Mackenzie, then the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, compared “a certain section of the native press” to scavengers and petty traitors.

Britain repealed its sedition laws, a relic of a bygone era, in 2009. But the rules it imposed on its Indian subjects 151 years ago remain intact, and are now being weaponised by the government of Narendra Modi. 

Sedition charges have risen by almost a third under Modi’s government, according to research published this month by Article 14, the website I edit. Of the 11,000 people accused of sedition in the past decade, nearly two thirds of charges have been filed since 2014, when Modi was first elected prime minister. Most of the charges since then have been aimed at critics of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); almost 150 people were accused of sedition merely for making “critical” or “derogatory” remarks about the prime minister himself. 

Under suspicion for doing their jobs

Until recently, journalists largely escaped the attention of the criminal justice system. But that changed last week, when nine media workers – among them a prominent former editor and a popular news anchor – were charged with a variety of crimes. Six were accused of sedition, for tweeting that a farmer killed during the mass protests against new farming laws had been shot by police. A reporter was arrested for writing that the police stood by while government supporters physically attacked farmers. 

Press freedom in India has never been absolute. Reporters in small towns have been threatened, beaten and even murdered by local strongmen. Over the last decade, India dropped 22 places on the global press freedom index, in large measure because of its repressive measures in Kashmir. Over a decade as editor with two leading newspaper groups, I encountered – and generally resisted – considerable pressure to drop stories for commercial and political reasons. 

There were always implicit red lines on what we could publish. Now those lines are becoming more explicit and restrictive because they are drawn by the BJP and its right-wing support network, which espouses virulent Hindu fundamentalism. The situation in India may not appear to be bad as Turkey, where journalists are imprisoned over editorials and cartoons. But the evisceration of the free press under Modi – who has never taken questions at a press conference since he became prime minister – is more subtle. 

Media owners, pressured by the government, have fired independent-minded reporters, editors and anchors. Most mainstream media companies censor news inconvenient to the government and many have transformed into BJP cheerleaders, or provide platforms for hate speech against India’s Muslim minority and government critics. 

The few independent media outlets that remain, mostly small companies and nonprofits, face undue attention from tax officials and debilitating fines from regulators, among other pressures. Impartial journalism is unwelcome under Modi, and the use of sedition charges is just the latest step. Of the 154 detentions or arrests of journalists over the last decade, 40% occurred in 2020, according to the Free Speech Collective, an advocacy group. Filing criminal cases against journalists who simply report the news – or even tweet it – is a model perfected in Kashmir, and is now in the process of being deployed elsewhere. 

According to the advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased” since the BJP was re-elected in 2019. RSF noted that journalists face coordinated hate campaigns, and threats of rape and murder if they write about subjects that displease Hindu nationalists.  

Instruments of the state

Shackling the free press has been made easier because India’s institutions – unlike those in the US, which survived the depredations of Donald Trump – have mostly caved in. In November, the political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta accused India’s Supreme Court, once largely independent, of “judicial barbarism” for treating dissent, protest and free expression as seditious activity and using the law as “an instrument of oppression”. The police have become blunt instruments of the state, often bringing charges against the victims of attacks by Hindu nationalists. 

Under Modi, persecution of India’s Muslims has taken root thanks to the radicalisation of the country’s Hindu majority, and its normalisation in politics, the criminal justice system and the media. That is the larger context for the crackdown on press freedom: despite widespread unrest, a substantial number of Indians are indifferent to the plight of minorities and support state-sponsored repression. 

Those of us who remain independent must be prepared to do our best while the state does its worst. We must expect the knock on the door, and to be regarded – in both Mackenzie and Modi’s worldview – as scavengers and petty traitors.

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