Indian journalists face newer forms of intimidation

Media watchdog warns that rise in Hindu nationalism and an atmosphere of intolerance are fueling self-censorship
Indian journalists face newer forms of intimidation

India's thriving newspaper industry is facing a threat from Hindu nationalism and the suppression of free speech. (Photo by Diptendu Dutta/AFP)

Six months after journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead at the door of her residence in Bengaluru in southern India, outspoken writer K.S. Bhagwan faces a death threat in the same state of Karnataka.

The murder of Lankesh, known for being a critic of Hindu extremism, has created national outrage against the use of violence and murder to suppress free speech and non-conformist writings.

"With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media," says Reporters Without Borders in its latest report.

The atmosphere of intolerance increased after the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014 in a landslide victory, which Hindu groups took as mandate to accelerate their goal of making India a Hindu-only nation, critics say.

An average of three journalists are killed each year in India, according to the Press Freedom Index, which ranked the country 136th out of 180 nations. More than 70 journalists have been killed in India in the past 24 years.

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Besides death and intimidation, "journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government," Reporters Without Borders said.

The government has no direct control of the media, said Sidharth Bhatia, a senior journalist. "But there are pressures from owners, managements, advertisers and sometimes political parties. It is not the happiest of situations," Bhatia told ucanews.com.

Indian laws and regulations are also used to check journalistic freedom, says Mukund Padmanabhan, editor of India's leading newspaper, The Hindu.

"Sometimes it is the government and sometimes other groups that use these laws against journalists," he said.

Indian laws that deal with promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence and language can be used against journalists. Their works can be interpreted as acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony or deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings. Violation of these laws can be punished with imprisonment, Padmanabhan said.

More than 100 million copies are printed each day of about 82,000 newspapers and periodicals published in languages including English, Hindu and Urdu. India also has 400 satellite news channels in 18 languages for a population of 1.2 billion people.

India has one of the biggest media markets in the world, attracting companies more interested in profit and forming public opinion than in journalistic values.

A report compiled by Indian news portal The Hoot shows that in 2017 alone there were 54 attacks on journalists in India. They were mostly carried out by political parties, drug peddlers and officials accused of corruption.

Geeta Seshu, the Mumbai-based consulting editor of The Hoot, does not believe law enforcement acts efficiently against those attacking journalists.

She said in several cases the police's first response to a threat, attack or killing of a journalist was to claim that the victim was not a journalist or that the attack was not related to work.

"There is a deflection and that becomes the narrative. That becomes the course of the investigation also. And, unfortunately, our criminal justice system depends a lot on the local police report and investigation," Seshu said.

Police are responsible for the first stages in any investigation. Applying faulty and appropriate sections of the law, not clearly recording witness statements or not protecting vulnerable witnesses, and not following up on preliminary investigations could damage justice, she said.  

Social media attacks are a newer threat, said Shahid Sidiqi, editor of Urdu newspaper Nai Duniya (New World). "Once a journalist does any story against a particular political party, he is trolled ruthlessly and abused. This exposes him to even greater threats," Sidiqi said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his own way of undermining media, according to Hamia Qazi, a research scholar at the journalism department of Kashmir University.

"Since coming to power, he hasn't held a single media conference to take direct questions from the media. Rather, he has been selectively giving interviews to handpicked media persons. This has set a trend of undermining the media and their authority to question the government," Qazi said.

Lankesh's murder was a warning to those speaking against Hindu extremism, with the government suspected of indirectly supporting those intimidating non-conformist journalists.

Freelance photojournalist Kamran Yusuf was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on charges of being involved in anti-India protests in Kashmir.

He was jailed but released on bail on March 14. One charge against him was not covering pro-government stories as a journalist.

After the Lankesh murder, investigators arrested K.T. Naveen Kumar, leader of Hindu Yuva Sena (Young Army of Hindus). Local media reported that his interrogation revealed a plan to kill writer Bhagwan in Mysuru.

Journalists working for local media outlets are "often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government's tacit consent," said the Reporters Without Borders report.

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