Mumbai: When a little-known YouTube channel posted a video on 11 February 2021 calling for some of India’s most prominent journalists to “be hanged”, it marked a new danger for India’s free press, shared as it was by a host of right-wing figures, despite its call to execute at least five senior journalists, all from India’s clutch of independent online news media.
Among the journalists that the video—it claimed to reveal a “money trail” between the journalists and an “anti-India conspiracy” to draw attention to ongoing protests by thousands of farmers—named were Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair, Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub, independent journalist Faye D’Souza, television anchor and owner of Mojo Story Barkha Dutt, senior editor of The Wire Arfa Khanum Sherwani, transparency activist and former journalist Saket Gokhale, YouTuber Dhruv Rathee and several news organisations, including The NewsMinute. The claims in the video were soon found to be fake, but that did not matter.
Acknowledging it violated their policy on hate and bullying, YouTube took down the video later that day, but by then it had clocked half a million views. Twitter handles of those who identified themselves as ‘swayamsevak’, ‘proud Hindu’, a spokesperson for the BJP, and some claiming to bust propaganda, all with tens of thousands of followers each, backed the video and its claims.
On a television show, a man introduced as a researcher with a YouTube channel called String, which uploaded the video, claimed that the creation of Digipub, an association set up in 2020 to represent independent digital news media was part of a conspiracy. Article 14 is one of Digipub’s founding members.
The call for executing journalists appeared to cross a rubicon in rising attacks against India’s independent journalists and media over the last five years, marked in 2020 by a surge of government raids and criminal cases. The police took no action against the man who called for the hangings.
If in 2015-16, channels found themselves receiving tersely worded show-cause notices or were called ‘presstitutes’ by a cabinet minister, later years witnessed a gradual choking of independent voices in the media through criminal cases, pressure to self-censor and drop opinion pieces by columnists that the government found uncomfortable. Top editors resigned or were fired (here, here and here) over disagreements on censorship by owners.
These attacks soared in 2019 and 2020, most of all in Kashmir, which appears to have served as a proving ground, as journalists in the conflict-ridden region faced rising intimidation and surveillance after Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was abrogated in August 2019. The Kashmir playbook on controlling the media through criminal cases, including those related to sedition and terrorism, has arrived definitively in the rest of India.
"This is certainly the worst I've seen since I became a journalist," Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of The Wire, one of the media organisations named in the String YouTube video, told Article 14 about the present media situation.
“There was a lot of official dissatisfaction with the way we covered the Gujarat killings of 2002 at the Times Of India, and the government (of Bharatiya Janata Party Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee) found ways to communicate this to management, and this was in turn communicated to us, but we never had to stop doing the work we were doing, and we never really came under that pressure. What’s happening now is qualitatively very different from anything i have seen since 1995, frankly.”
He said the media’s “willingness to play the government’s game” makes the current situation more dangerous, for media proprietors and editors are less likely to resist government suggestions or pressure today “than at any time in the recent past”.
Of 154 Indian journalists arrested or facing a government hostility for their professional work between 2010 and 2020, more than 40% were in 2020 alone, an analysis by the Free Speech Collective, an advocacy group, found.
Rajendran of TheNewsMinute, a founding member of Digipub and one of those identified by the String video for public hanging, said attacks on independent journalism have sharpened in many ways.
“It is not just state machinery, which can use agencies to clamp down on news organisations. We also have senior ministers’ (Twitter) handles going after journalists, they tell their ecosystem to target this journalist,” she told Article 14.
This ecosystem now synchronises disinformation, even if it lacks any logic or evidence: YouTube channels, Twitter handles with droves of followers and editors of some right-wing, pro-government media play a part, she said.
“It is very coordinated, across platforms,” according to Ayyub, who said while she had been subjected to threats and online harassment for years, attackers now appeared to work in tandem on various social-media platforms and are emboldened enough to accuse her of terrorism and to name and abuse her family.
On 11 February, support for the String YouTube channel’s video from right-wing social media accounts served as a dog-whistle to an army of right-wing trolls and accounts. By 12 February, the video was no longer available on YouTube, but the channel’s circle of influence grew exponentially: Its Twitter handle, named StringReveals, posted a screenshot showing they were followed by the verified Twitter handle of BJP president J P Nadda. The hashtag #StringReveals along with #TeamHinduUnited was a top Twitter trend in India by the end of the day.
On the video’s insinuation that the formation of Digipub is anything but an attempt to build a robust platform to represent digital news organisations, members of the foundation said plans to set up such a body had in fact been discussed since 2016. More detailed plans began as early as 2018, soon after then Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani said that digital news would be brought under government regulations.
Arrests, Raids, Terror And Sedition Cases
In tandem with what clearly appeared to be engineered social media anger against specified journalists and organisations, the latest move against the media was a marathon raid by the Enforcement Directorate at the house of Prabir Purkayastha, editor-in-chief of news website Newsclick.
The raid at Purkayastha’s home continued for nearly 114 hours, with the 73-year-old editor and his 67-year-old partner, the writer Gita Hariharan, detained at home until the raiding team left early on 14 February. The office of Newsclick was also subjected to a 36-hour raid during which some equipment was seized.
Some news reports, mainly from pro-government websites, claimed the ED raid was linked to foreign remittances of Rs 30.51 crore, information that the website said was a selective leaking of “misleading facts”. A Newsclick statement said: “It also constitutes a violation of the sanctity of the legal and investigative process.”
A lawyer from Phoenix Legal, a firm representing NewsClick and its directors, was quoted in the Indian Express as saying their clients were not aware why they were being investigated. The lawyer said, “We are ourselves in the dark and we don’t know exactly why we are being investigated.” They didn’t know if the raid was in connection with a particular First Information Report (FIR).
Digipub, of which Purkayastha is vice-president, said in a statement that Newsclick sought to “hold power accountable” and the raid was “a clear attempt to suppress journalism critical of the government and its allies”. Newsclick had reported the farmers’ protests extensively (here, here and here).
Criminal cases and arrests are increasingly common against journalists rejecting the official narrative. As the Editors Guild Of India tweeted on 3 February, 2021 has begun “on an ominous note” for India’s free press.
In just the last week of January 2021, as a two-month demonstration by farmers on the borders of India’s capital turned volatile, threatening to turn into an international embarrassment, the government’s response was a flurry of actions to muzzle the press. Sedition cases were filed against six journalists, including India Today consulting editor Rajdeep Sardesai, veteran journalist Mrinal Pande and Caravan executive editor Vinod K Jose, in five police stations in five states for tweeting that a farmer-protestor killed on 26 January had been hit by a bullet.
Freelance journalist Mandeep Punia was dragged away from a farmers’ protest site on Delhi’s outskirts on the evening of 30 January. Around 1.20 am on 31 January, the police filed a case against him under sections 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty) and 353 (criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. Another journalist, Dharmender Singh, was detained along with Punia but later allowed to go.
The Wire reporter Ismat Ara and editor Varadarajan were named in another FIR for reporting charges levelled by the dead protestor’s family that a doctor conducting the autopsy had verbally conceded that the body bore a bullet wound.
An arrest warrant was issued by a Gujarat court against senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta on 20 January in a defamation case filed by the Adani group for a report he co-authored in 2017. The Uttar Pradesh (UP) police filed a case against three journalists for reporting that government school students had been made to do yoga in the cold.
On 1 February, Twitter “withheld” about 100 accounts in India that were tweeting about the farm protests, including that of Caravan magazine, based on a directive from the central Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) after the government took umbrage to a hashtag. Meanwhile, at the Singhu protest site on Delhi’s northern fringe, journalists were barred from entering the protest site.
The use of these executive powers has a “chilling effect” on overall reportage, journalists said.
“I never imagined I would see a day when the chill would spread through the country, when I would fear for the safety of my colleagues going out to report in the national capital,” Supriya Sharma, executive editor of Scroll, who covered Chhattisgarh’s conflict between Maoists and security forces, told Article 14.
In June 2020, the UP police filed an FIR against Sharma under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and under sections 501 (printing defamatory matter) and 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. The case was filed following a report by Sharma on the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown on residents of Varanasi district, the prime minister’s constituency. A woman villager who Sharma interviewed reportedly complained to the police later alleging that her comments had been misrepresented. In August 2020, the Allahabad High Court granted Sharma protection from immediate arrest.
Sharma said the government had criminalised factually accurate, "fair and balanced" reporting, “because it communicates more than just the government’s version of events”.
The Withering Of The Counter Narrative
On 4 February, following a statement from the US Department of State, in response to questions on India’s farm laws and the protests, the Press Trust of India and ANI reported that the Biden administration had backed the contentious laws.
In fact, the US State Department statement, while cautiously welcoming “steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets”, called for dialogue with the farmers and underlined that peaceful protests and freedom of expression are the “hallmark” of a democracy.
That it is the foreign media doing investigative journalism in and about India should raise some difficult questions, said Ayyub, the Washington Post columnist. “Why have we not been able to do a single damning expose in Indian publications in the last five years?” she said. “…This is the time to take a stand and take an aggressive stand. Journalism is not even in danger, they have managed to intimidate us into silence, that process has happened.”
“For a nation whose constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, the recent escalating assaults on its media is a worrying and damaging development,” said the Interpreter, published by Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute, about the recent arrests of and FIRs against journalists. “The noose around dissent is getting tighter” in states ruled by the BJP, it said.
Ayyub said the “centrism” that has taken hold of much of mainstream media’s approach to news coverage was "disappointing" and was evidence of editors playing a "both-sides game" to appear objective.
For all the apparent vibrancy of the Indian media landscape, the problem of concentrated media ownership through politically affiliated entities and an interdependence between media, business and politics have emerged as sharp faultlines, as a report by media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders found. The organisation’s global Press Freedom Index listed India at 142nd out of 180 countries in 2020, behind countries such as Afghanistan and South Sudan, and lower than its rank of 133 in 2016 and 140 in 2014.
The discomfort experienced by mainstream media on being presented with a writer or columnist whose views are not in consonance with the preferred official narrative was evident in April 2020 when historian and writer Ramachandra Guha announced he was withdrawing his fortnightly column in the Hindustan Times. The trigger was a column he wrote on the government of India’s Central Vista project that the newspaper declined to publish. Guha tweeted that the editors were in fact “happy to publish” the piece, but had been overruled by “bosses” and “the management”.
The Kashmir Playbook In The Rest Of India
With every line he writes or edits, Srinagar-based journalist Fahad Shah imagines he’s sitting in a courtroom, answering a judge asking if he can provide evidence for what he just wrote. “We can be booked for anything,” said Shah, an independent journalist and news entrepreneur for 11 years.
Founder-editor of The Kashmir Walla, an independent website, Shah has had two FIRs filed against him over the past year and has been summoned by the police half a dozen times over the past few years, all in connection with his journalism. In 2017, he was detained and interrogated for eight hours. In 2020, he was plucked from a car on a highway and interrogated for five hours at a police station. He also had to get anticipatory bail three times over the last year on account of cases and threats emerging from his work as editor of The Kashmir Walla.
Kashmir’s journalists have witnessed a pattern of intimidation and surveillance since August 2019 when Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, granting Jammu & Kashmir special status, was abrogated. Journalists have been threatened, roughed up, booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967; some have had government advertising to their publications shut off; and many others have been subjected to attempts at State censorship.
In September 2019, Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani was stopped at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. He was travelling to Germany on a professional visit.
In April 2020, independent Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra was booked under the UAPA, for photos she had uploaded on Facebook.
In August 2020, some publications were barred from receiving any government advertisements, some for alleged violations of the new media policy of the union territory. This policy granted the government the right to declare a report as being fake news and suspend government advertising to them.
Neither personal safety nor the right to report the facts is guaranteed to Kashmir’s journalists, as Article 14 reported in September 2020. Asif Sultan, a journalist with Kashmir Narrator, has been in jail since 27 August 2018, charged under the UAPA. Srinagar-based journalist Auqib Javeed was slapped, threatened by the police after he wrote in Article 14 about police intimidation of Twitter users.
In October 2020, Zahra told BBC she personally knew people who quit journalism because of a carefully engineered atmosphere of fear.
“These FIRs are mentally draining, rendering us unable to focus on work, which is the objective,” said Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, whose most recent case came on 30 January 2021 when the Shopian police in south Kashmir filed an FIR against him. Based on a complaint by the Indian Army, the case was filed under sections 153 and 505 of the IPC, pertaining to inciting a riot and making statements “conducing to public mischief”.
Quoting the chairman-principal, The Kashmir Walla reported on 27 January that the school had been pressured by the army to host a Republic Day event.
On 28 and 29 January, the school called the report “baseless”. The Kashmir Walla's reporters had recorded a conversation with the principal, who they were now no longer able to reach on the phone. On 30 January, the company commander of the Army unit wrote to Shopian district authorities quoting the school’s note, contending that the report could foment a law-and-order problem. Denied anticipatory bail on 2 February, Shah said he hopes to appeal against the order, but he could indeed be arrested any time.
“Maybe they won’t do it, you never know but having an FIR means you could be called, summoned or even arrested any time,” he said. He’s coping by keeping the focus on his journalism. “We’re continuing our work, as we always do.”
Kashmir’s media policy has led most journalists to “censor themselves”, said Shah, and many issues are no longer covered. “When we publish those stories, we become the odd one out,” he said, “seen as creating trouble.”
In what appeared to be a leaf from the Kashmir model of Internet shutdowns, following violence at various places in Delhi on 26 January, the union government suspended mobile Internet services in the Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri and Nangloi areas on the outskirts of Delhi the same evening, followed by a similar suspension by the Haryana government in 14 districts for three days, until 30 January.
The suspension orders were issued under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. The next day, Twitter “withheld” the accounts of about 100 Twitter users, including that of Caravan magazine, following a directive from the MEITY, issued under section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Section 69A allows the Centre power to block public access of any information though computer resources “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security .. or public order…” But as Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules of 2009 mandates “strict confidentiality” regarding all requests, complaints and action taken, the user or author cannot seek judicial remedy.
According to Apar Gupta, executive director of digital liberties organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, MEITY’s orders to Twitter impacts the public’s right to know and receive information, said Gupta.
“Especially in the case of Caravan’s Twitter account, as it is a journalistic account, withholding it not only impacts the rights of the reporters, editors and publishers, but also the readers who suffer the injury of the right to receive information,” said Gupta, “which in turn is also a breach of the fundamental right of freedom of expression.”
Now, with Twitter refusing to back off on its stand against taking down more handles, the Centre has threatened penal action against the company, including arrests of its employees.
Journalism’s Shrinking Spaces
In December 2019, a report by journalist and media researcher Geeta Seshu documented 198 attacks on journalists over the preceding five years, including many targeted for investigative reporting.
In January 2019, four photojournalists were injured when security forces fired pellets on them in South Kashmir’s Shopian. In Kerala, in 2018 and 2019, organisations claimed that more than 100 journalists were attacked by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, backed by the BJP and RSS. In 2017, at least 14 journalists were arrested in Chhattisgarh.
Neha Dixit, an independent journalist who won the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, was among those often threatened with violence. In January 2021, there was an attempted break-in at her home in New Delhi.
A journalist for 14 years, Dixit told Article 14 that what’s changed over the last seven years is “the emboldening” of those who threaten gang-rape, acid-attacks and more. Dixit said she tried not to think of the threats.
“It seems to me the moment I think about it, it paralyses me,” said Dixit. Coming from a family where journalism was not considered an ideal occupation for women, giving up now would also render meaningless the challenges she overcame along the way, she said.
“There is no option,” she said. “Either you work or you don’t.”
Varadarajan of The Wire said pressure on them has come in the form of legal threats and defamation cases, both civil and criminal, in response to stories.
Ongoing defamation cases against them include those filed by BJP member of parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar, union home minister Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Anil Ambani group. The Adani and Zee groups, both close to the government, had also filed cases against The Wire, but these were withdrawn.
Varadarajan personally has two criminal FIRs against him, a recent one for his tweets on 30 January about claims made by the family of the protestor who died in Delhi on 26 January and one from April 2020, when a tweet about UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath led a posse of UP policemen to drive from Ayodhya to his home in Delhi, where he was served a notice asking him to appear in Ayodhya on 14 April, m in the middle of a nation-wide Covid-19 lockdown.
In addition, Varadarajan said, “I think that at some level the government has put some pressure on large donors.” He said The Wire is a nonprofit that relies on philanthropy and reader donations.
Seshu, co-editor of the Free Speech Collective, compiled a second report at the end of 2020, this time documenting a rise in criminal cases against Indian journalists for their work, “with a majority of cases in BJP-ruled states”. The report, an analysis of arrests, detentions, summons, interrogations and show-cause notices against journalists between 2010 and 2020, documents 154 such cases, including 67 in 2020 alone. Seventy-three cases, or 48% of the total, were reported from BJP-ruled states, and UP led the pack with 29. Another 30 were from states ruled by the BJP with allies.
In 2021, apart from the latest sedition cases, FIRs, Punia’s arrest and the Newsclick raid, there is also the case of Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times. She had to approach the Supreme Court after the Meghalaya High Court refused to quash criminal proceedings against her. In neighbouring Manipur, a sedition case was filed against executive editor Paojel Chaoba and editor Dhiren Sadokpam of The Frontier Manipur.
Mukhim, a Padma Shri awardee, was charged under sections 153A, 500 and 505 of the IPC (pertaining to promoting enmity, defamation and making statements conducive to public mischief) for a Facebook post in which she appealed for impartial application of the law on atrocities against non-tribals in Shillong. The Frontier Manipur’s editors were slapped with a UAPA case for what they later said was an unverified article about armed revolutionary groups published on the Imphal-based news portal. The two editors were held for a day and later released.
In October 2020, Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested on his way to Hathras in UP to cover the gangrape of a Dalit girl. He was charged under the UAPA for allegedly raising funds for terror. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) has denied the UP police’s accusation that he is a member of Islamic organisation Popular Front of India.
On 3 February, Supreme Court advocate Wills Mathews, who is representing the KUWJ in Kappan’s matter, told Article 14 he hoped to get an interim bail application listed urgently for Kappan to meet his ailing mother.
“It is an application for interim bail, for only five days as his mother, who is 90 years old, is critically ill, cannot speak or recognise anybody or attend phone calls. Ultimately it is her last wish, she has not done any crime, and any court in any democratic country will view this kindly, we hope,” Mathews told Article 14. Kappan has now been in jail for more than 130 days.
Freelance reporter Prashant Kanojia was arrested in August 2020 for allegedly tweeting morphed content relating to the Ram temple being constructed in Ayodhya and charged under nine sections of the IPC. Kanojia was finally granted bail by the Allahabad high court, two months after his arrest.
Kanojia, who plans to launch his own online magazine, told Article 14 the arrest changed many things irreversibly.
“Basically nobody will hire me,” he said. He said despite widespread appreciation for his work as a freelancer, he is seen as a likely “problematic” employee because he won’t mould his opinions to meet corporate owners’ expectations or “sugarcoat” his language. His wife, also a freelance journalist, faces a similar problem since his arrest and release. “Your family is paying a price,” Kanojia said.
The couple continues to report and write as freelance journalists based in New Delhi, with Prashant having to request friends to accompany him on any travel outside the city. Just back from Lucknow where he spent a few days, he said a friendly policeman warned him to stay under the radar while in UP—there is a constant fear of being recognised and assaulted by a mob. On a metro ride in the capital recently, a fellow passenger recognised him and launched into a tirade about his original tweet.
The Impunity Granted To Pro-Government Media
The detentions and hostility towards journalists further vitiates an increasingly polarised political atmosphere: the media too are divided, with inflammatory reportage and social media posts, including hate speech, from mainly pro-government journalists with no legal consequences.
On 11 February, Zee News anchor Aman Chopra tweeted a photograph of a smiling Munawar Farooqui, posted by the stand-up comedian after his release from jail. In Hindi, Chopra captioned the photo to say his “blood is boiling” on seeing the smiling Farooqui, who he said appeared to show “no remorse” after “abusing” Hindu deities Ram and Sita, which Farooqui never did.
As Article 14 reported in January 2021, Farooqui was arrested in the midst of his act in Indore on 7 January after Hindu vigilantes claimed that the comedian had “poked fun” at Hindu gods and goddesses during his act. Police admitted to Article 14 that no jokes were made about Hinduism, but Farooqui stayed in custody until the first week of February, when the Supreme Court granted him interim bail.He had spent more than a month in jail for a joke he did not crack.
Chopra’s tweet received 14,600 ‘likes’.
On 31 January, senior journalist Coomi Kapoor wrote that the number of journalists covering the current session of Parliament had been restricted to the“bare minimum”, alongside several other more visible changes within the Parliament complex, some of it possibly on account of the construction activity for a new Parliament building and the social distancing norms in place.
“But the reason for not renewing Lok Sabha passes for accredited journalists in the Long and Distinguished category seems part of a larger pattern for shrinking the media space,” she wrote.
There are also intangible challenges for journalists who have encountered government hostility, including loss of credibility and a sense of fear about continuing to do investigative work.
Rachna Khaira was a Jalandhar-based staff reporter at The Tribune, when she reported a data breach in the Aadhaar system. A case of criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery and various charges under the IT Act, 2000 and Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 followed, against her and the publication. Khaira also faces a defamation suit for reporting lapses in an orphanage in Jalandhar, even though a 2016 scrutiny by a civil judge acknowledged the lapses.
Khaira continues to receive tip-offs meriting investigation into data breaches, but is unable to verify the facts. “With one FIR against me already, I find no way to go further with my investigation,” she told Article 14. In a small town, the attention was stifling.
Dixit said while she drew strength from friends, colleagues and senior journalists, reporters in smaller towns have no institutional or peer support and continue to work despite the odds. “The Delhi-based press bodies mostly respond to situations when journalists in Delhi’s power corridors are affected,” said Dixit. “Otherwise they don’t.”
Sharma of Scroll said the farmers’ protest movement has spread word about the worsening climate for press freedoms into the hinterland, especially in states where the protests are intense. “Lakhs of ordinary Indians in these states are now able to identify major TV news channels and newspapers as vehicles for government propaganda,” she said. “The term godi media [referring to a lapdog, from the HIndi word ‘godi’ for lap] has gone mainstream.”
As more and more news consumers rely on non-legacy media outlets and independent reporters, a crackdown against such reporting has gathered pace.
Those on the frontlines said they would persevere. Rajendran of TheNewsMinute said regardless of the government is in power, those who have resolved to speak truth to power will continue to do so.
“All these organisations and journalists named now in the YouTube video have a large body of work and some of their biggest stories were against the United Progressive Alliance regime. Were they branded anti-national then?” she said. “When one government becomes more problematic than another, the questions will become tougher.”
Ayyub said since India’s government would not accept its responsibility towards nurturing a free press or even accept a free press, journalists needed to support journalists more.
“Our journalism bodies, associations, everybody needs to understand that just because they are centrist does not keep them safe—that’s an illusion,” said Ayyub. “Once they’re done with us, they will come after them.”
(Kavitha Iyer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)