Media Under Fire in India

New Delhi: “Writing about issues like Delhi carnage of February 22, poor management of COVID-19 by BJP government or penning facts about Indian Kashmir (read as Indian Occupied Kashmir) is considered as too sensitive and can cause you to face perilous state if you are a writer or a journalist and you are living in India”

Above-mentioned para is the simple summary or summation of several background interviews conducted by this writer (name withheld due to security issue) with working journalists, writers and Civil Right activists here in Indian Capital—New Delhi.

Valiantly and bravely of Indian journalism and journalists had been an example for journalistic cadre of South Asia in past. Now things are otherwise. A creeping self-censorship is the ultimate outcome of crippling circumstances those are compelling Indian journalists to stay silent if they wish to work without taking risk of untimely seizure of their professional careers or unseen risks revolving around their families.

However, there are people who courageously penning and speaking without fear of intimidation and purge but these isolated voices are becoming “news”.

Cases are being registered against those reporters and writers who are reporting about government’s dealing with COVID-19 situation that left thousands of Indians dead while going back to their native places by foot due to abrupt curfew like Lockdown was clamped by Modi Sarkar, leaving over 3 million workers stranded and stuck in big cities without money, food and work.

Attacks on media freedom, especially during the Covid-19 crises, endangers not just free speech, but the public’s right to information.

In a recent case raised by internationally acclaimed Indian Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani, an IoK based journalist Peerada Ashiq working for The Hindu is being harassed by agencies.

Peerzada Ashiq is in trouble for a report published in daily The Hindu on April 15, 2020 titled “Kashmir halts sample collection after 5,000 test kits ‘mysteriously’ diverted to Jammu”.

In his report Peerzada Ashiq says that:

The Directorate of Health Services (DHS), Kashmir, has stopped taking samples from potentially infected persons in the Valley after a senior health official bypassed directions and diverted a Srinagar-bound consignment of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) allotted five boxes, carrying 5,000 test kits, to Jammu.

Report further says:

Official sources said the alarm was raised by top health officials in Srinagar besides officials in-charge of the COVID-19 crisis in the Divisional Commissioner’s office when a cargo plane arrived in Srinagar on Tuesday morning and failed to deliver the 5,000 testing kits “desperately required in the Valley”.

It was only following the intervention of Chief Secretary B.V.R. Subrahmanyam that 4,000 test kits were airlifted from Jammu to Srinagar around 4 p.m. on Tuesday. Sources said Jitendra Mehta of the National Health Mission, who advises Divisional Commissioner Pandurang K. Pole on procurements, diverted the testing kits to Jammu. “It’s being looked into if it was a goof-up or a deliberate attempt,” an official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

After above-mentioned report, writer of story Peerzada Ashiq was questioned by different agencies and Directorial of Information called his story as “Fake” although story was based on facts with citing different personalities.  Peerzada Ashiq had been called before in August and November 2019 by agencies because he wrote to unearth corruption in administrative system if Indian Kashmir (IoK).

Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani in one of his video clip stated that intimidation and harassment of Kashmir journalists have become a new normal and he cited different cases of harassment with Kashmiri journalists including with Hakim Irfan (Economic Times), Basharat Masood (Indian Express), Naseer Ganai (The Outlook), Aqib Javed (The Observer), Irfan Ali and Malik Haroon Nabi.

He stated that counter insurgency department, police and different other agencies are busy in harassing journalists for writing facts what Kashmir.

Siddharth Varadarajan in Trouble

One should remember what happened last week with Siddharth Varadarajan who is facing wrath of BJP government because an article published by The Wire pointed out that “Indian believers” more generally have been late to adopt precautions and avoid congregation, recalling UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s plans, as late as March 18, to proceed with a religious fair at Ayodhya and his flouting of the national lockdown and social distancing norms by taking part in a religious ceremony along with others on March 25.

Two FIRs were filed against Siddharth Varadarajan under various sections of the law on April 1, one on a complaint by a resident of Ayodhya and the other on the basis of a complaint by the SHO of the Kotwali Nagar police station, Faizabad. The FIRs were followed up with a gross display of intimidation on April 10 when policemen arrived in a black SUV with no number plates at Varadarajan’s residence in Delhi to issue a legal notice ordering him to appear in Ayodhya on April 14 at 10 am.

That the UP government sent policemen driving across 700 kilometres during the national lockdown to issue this summons when the postal system is still operational speaks volumes for its priorities. The Wire, along with other independent media and journalists, has been courageous and consistent in continuing to present the facts.

The UP police action is just the latest in a series of attempts by the ruling establishment, or persons close to them, to entangle The Wire and its editors in legal cases in an effort to shut them down.

The police action against The Wire also comes against the backdrop of the demonization of Muslims in a section of the media as being responsible for the spread of the novel coronavirus in India.

On April 6, the WHO felt the need to reiterate the principle that media should avoid religious or other profiling of COVID-19 cases.

What are FIRs against Siddharth Varadarajan?

FIR 0246/2020 filed on April 1, 2020 under Section 66 D of the Information Technology Act, Sections 188 and 505 (2) of the Indian Penal Code is based on a complaint by one Harvajan Goud, s/o Ram Sundar, r/o Ramdatpur, Atrava Darshannagar, Kotwali Ayodhya. The police have now added Section 67 of the IT Act, Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act (EDA) and Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (DMA).

The complaint in this FIR is that Harvajan Goud came across a tweet by one Siddharth on social media and was “pained to see how someone had written such false statement” on his chief minister. The complainant therefore asked for the IT act to be invoked. No specific detail of any tweet is provided. The sections cited in the FIR are:

  • Section 66D of the IT Act relates to ‘punishment for cheating by impersonation using computer source.’
  • Section 67 of the IT Act relates to the transmission of obscene material by electronic means.
  • Section 188 of the IPC and Sec 3 of the EDA is ‘disobedience of any order of a public servant’.
  • Section 505 (2) relates to ‘statements conducting public mischief’ which ‘create or promote enmity, hatred or ill will between classes.”
  • Section 54 of the DMA applies to ‘a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic’.

FIR 0268/2020 also filed on April 1, 2020 under Sections 188 and 505 (2) by Nitish Kumar Shrivastav, Inspector in Charge, Kotwali Nagar, Faizabad, against the Editor of The Wire, (name and address unknown) notes that:

(translation from Hindi) On that day it came to his notice that during the lockdown, the Editor of the Wire, with an intent to spread rumours and enmity, published the following on his ‘blog’:

(reproduced in English): “On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Yogi Adityanath insisted that a large fair planned for Ayodhya on the occasion of Ram Navami from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual while Acharya Paramhans said that ‘Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus”. One day after Modi announced the “curfew like” national lockdown on March 24, Adityanath violated the official guidelines to take part in a religious ceremony in Ayodhya along with dozens of people.”

(translated from Hindi): This is the way during the lockdown caused by the corona pandemic and the imposition of Sec 144, the improper remarks by the Wire Editor against Yogi Adityanath caused anger among the general public. This comes under Sec 188/505 (2) of the IPC.

This FIR does not mention any specific article but the quoted passage appears to have been taken from a story titled ‘As COVID-19 Cases Spike in Nizamuddin, Nehru Stadium in Delhi to Become Quarantine Centre’ published in The Wire on March 31, 202.

The story as it stood at the time the FIR was lodged was factually correct in every respect, and the two primary claims about Adityanath – that his government initially had every intention of going ahead with the Ram Navami mela in Ayodhya from March 25 despite the fear of COVID-19, and that he took part in a religious gathering in Ayodhya on March 25 despite the lockdown —  have been reported by multiple news outlets.

Strong reaction over FIRs against Siddharth Varadarajan came from civil society

Several internationally renowned jurists, scholars, activists, artists and acclaimed public figures have already signed a statement, criticizing draconian behavior of Indian State against journalists who write truth. Those who signed statement include Justice Madan B. Lokur, Pranab Bardhan, Arjun Appadurai, Sheldon Pollock, Barbara Harriss White, Patricia Jeffery, James Manor, Ashutosh Varshney, Christophe Jaffrelot, Sumit Sarkar, Romila Thapar, Ramchandra Guha, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Nayantara Sehgal, Amol Palekar, Mallika Sarabhai, Harsh Mander, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, Nandita Das, Prabhat Patnaik, Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Sandeep Pandey, Partha Chatterjee, Urvashi Butalia, Apoorvanand Jha, Harbans Mukhia. Till filling of this report, over 4,900 persons have signed an online petition to snub action against Siddharth Varadarajan.

Indian intellectuals are questioning that media houses which have blatantly spewed venom, communalizing the corona virus, have just gone free and on the otherhand journalists like Siddharth Vardarajan who have been fearlessly asking questions about the misconduct by various leaders are being intimidated by filing FIRs against them.

A senior journalist from Delhi Shabnam Hashmi called this behavior of government as a blatant attack on freedom of the press and condemned intimidation and demanded the quashing of the FIR against Siddharth Vardarajan.

Activist Arundhati Roy who has become “Persona non grata” for New Delhi due to her bold stance in her recent interview with DW Germany said that Indian government is exploiting COVID-19 to ramp up its suppression of Muslims. She compared the government tactic to one used by the Nazis during the Holocaust. She had been voicing against censorship in India and at target board of BP since long.

“The ugly practice is unchecked in India of booking journalists in fake cases, summoning them by various agencies with the aim to obfuscate truth and threatening them for dire consequences if they publish truth. This situation is attracting attention of foreign media also and now western media is reporting cases of ill behavior BJP government has towards Muslims, Dalits and independent journalists,” commented a journalist from Delhi while requesting to withhold his name because she says she has two school going daughters and she cannot take risk of their lives for being blunt and bold—- A self-censorship has already gripped Indian Media.