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Reporting is not a crime. So why has India’s government charged our magazine?

The Caravan’s editors write that charges filed against them after covering protests are an ‘assault on free media’.

Martand Kaushik Ahan Penkar
5 February 2021, 9.52am
People chant at the Tikri border, where police erected barricades to prevent the farmers' protest from entering Delhi
Manish Rajput / SOPA Images/Sipa USA. All rights reserved

On 26 January, India celebrated the anniversary of its constitution, which 74 years ago promised citizens a secular, democratic state and justice, equality and liberty for all. But as the traditional Republic Day parade took place in New Delhi’s centre, across the city those very values were being violated in the most egregious manner.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers, who have been peacefully protesting the government’s new agricultural laws since November, held a rally on Republic Day, on the outskirts of the capital. But when farmers forced their way into the city, police responded with violence.

One 34-year-old protester, Navreet Singh, was killed. Officials claimed the death was an accident, due to Singh’s tractor overturning. But several eyewitnesses and forensic experts allege that Singh was shot and killed by the police. The Caravan magazine, which we work for, was one of the first media outlets to report these eyewitness accounts.

Both violence against protesters and disinformation vilifying them has been on the rise in recent weeks, and there has also been a government crackdown on reporters. Since The Caravan reported on Singh, police in five different states, all controlled by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have filed criminal charges against our magazine’s publisher and editor-in-chief, editor, and executive editor – Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, and Vinod Jose respectively for offences including “sedition”, “criminal conspiracy” and “statements conducing to public mischief”.

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At least six other senior Indian journalists were also charged this week, including Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of The Wire, as well as an opposition MP.

The recently leaked WhatsApp messages of one of the most well-known Indian television news anchors, Arnab Goswami, show the disturbing proximity between the government and prominent journalists.

On 30 January, Mandeep Punia, a freelance journalist and contributor for The Caravan, and Dharmendra Singh, a video journalist, were arrested while reporting the farmers’ protest. Singh, who was later released, said Punia was detained after questioning an officer. The police allege that Punia was arrested for obstruction and assault.

The Indian government is also attempting to strongarm Twitter into censoring its critics and independent media. On 1 February, following government orders, Twitter suspended 250 accounts in India – including The Caravan’s official handle. The move came just weeks after Twitter suspended the account of Donald Trump, leading several commentators to point out that it seemed the social media company believed that democratic values needed to be protected only in the West.

When Twitter finally caved in and restored these handles, the government sent a legal notice threatening the company’s officials with a seven-year jail sentence for not complying with Indian law.

Regular press intimidation

Since the Narendra Modi government first came to power in 2014, it has systematically taken over India’s media landscape. The mainstream media, run by big corporations, was fairly easy to conquer. The owners of these organisations depend on the government for advertising revenue and for support in their other business interests. Those who did not fall in line have had to deal with tax investigations, disappearing ad revenues and organised online trolling, including death and rape threats.

The recently leaked WhatsApp messages of one of the most well-known Indian television news anchors, Arnab Goswami, show the disturbing proximity between the government and prominent journalists, who have been instrumental in constructing a personality cult around Modi and disseminating Hindu-nationalist propaganda.

From the messages, it’s apparent that Goswami had knowledge of the 2019 military strike against Pakistan before it took place. There is also talk of “buying a judge” and securing appointments in the prime minister’s office.

Independent media and journalists in small towns have been subject to regular intimidation and violence. Harassment through police interrogation, spurious cases, arrests and assault has been routine.

Independent media and journalists in small towns have been subject to regular intimidation and violence. Harassment through police interrogation, spurious cases, arrests and assault has been routine, especially in conflict zones such as Kashmir and portions of central India affected by a Maoist insurgency. In 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered by Hindu nationalists, according to a police investigation. Three years later, India fell to its lowest ever rank on the Press Freedom Index – 142nd of 180 countries.

Attacks on The Caravan are also not new, but have become much more frequent over the past few years. In 2019, Vivek Doval, the son of India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, filed a “criminal defamation” lawsuit against the magazine for publishing an article that disclosed details of a hedge fund he ran in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. The case is still in court.

In August 2020, while reporting targeted violence against Muslims in Delhi, three staff journalists were assaulted by a Hindu nationalist mob, one member of which sexually harassed a woman reporter. In October last year, one of the writers of this article, Ahan Penkar, was viciously assaulted by a senior Delhi police official while reporting on a rape in the capital.

Civil liberties only for nationalists

The assault on free media has coincided with a deterioration of independent democratic institutions, such as the judiciary, law enforcement, investigative agencies and the Election Commission, a regulatory body meant to ensure free and fair elections. India’s rank on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, has slipped from 23rd in 2013 to 53rd in 2020, classifying the country as a “flawed democracy”.

A polarised environment has been created, where civil liberties are contingent upon proving one’s “nationalist” credentials, which essentially means whether one supports Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party or not. Police in the state of Uttarakhand, ruled by Modi’s party, recently declared that issuance of a passport would now depend on social media behaviour, and those putting up “anti-national” posts may not be issued one.

In such an environment, not just dissent, but reporting truthfully on what one sees around them is a dangerous prospect, as experienced by our contributor Mandeep Punia.

On 3 February, when Punia was released on bail, he told fellow reporters waiting for him outside prison that since authorities would not give him a piece of paper, he made copious notes on his shins, for a report he wanted to write on farmers he met in jail.

Later, he tweeted, “This incident has strengthened my resolve to continue with my work, that is reporting from the ground, the most dangerous and yet the most necessary part of journalism.”

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