Defending the Defenders: Bangalore meeting
SYNOPSIS This initiative is a response to the grave and growing challenges to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and the right to dissent. Journalists, bloggers, authors, social media activists, Right to Information Activists and those who uncover facts and speak truth to power, are vulnerable to being silenced in a variety of ways. How can they be prevented from being killed outright, or bearing the burden of legal injunctions, where the process itself is harassment. This initiative aims to provide timely and sustained legal defence to those defending the right to free speech. The Human Rights Law Network, with units in 20 states, has already been offering legal aid to journalists in need. The current initiative aims to consolidate and systematize the effort by linking up lawyers with journalists, bloggers and RTI activists. Towards this end, a brainstorming meeting was held in Bangalore on November 17, 2018. It was attended by 18 journalists, practicing lawyers, law students, filmmakers, LGBTQI, feminist and human rights activists. Laxmi Murthy and Aditi Saxena introduced the idea of a network of lawyers and activists, to strengthen the existing network of lawyers brought together by the Human Rights Law Network. The urgency of the venture, in these times of closing spaces for free expression was underlined. The main issues identified: 1. Physical attacks and outright murders: especially by vested political and economic interests. The sand mafia, liquor mafia in different parts of the country was one example, cited as being responsible for recent killings in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, U.P and M.P. 2. Use of law to silence dissenters and truth tellers: Uncovering the truth often has legal repercussions like defamation – both criminal and civil. Independent journalists, in particular, do not have the wherewithal to fight these long drawn out cases. The IT Act, including Sec 66A continue to be over- and mis-used to harass journalists and bloggers. 3. Lack of protection from media houses and the state: journalists are left to fend for themselves in extremely insecure conditions, job insecurity and no protections of any kind either from their employers or the state. 4. Impunity due to lack of proper prosecution: the failure to secure convictions was partly due to shabby investigation and lack of following proper police procedures, forensics etc. 5. Lack of solidarity in the media community: fragmentation and lack of unity was one of the reasons for lack of strong advocacy to strengthen journalists’ rights. There are also ideological cleavages in the media community, mirroring the polarization in the polity today. Possible ways forward: 1. Crisis Response Network: The network, the underpinning of which will be the Constitution of India, will attempt to intervene on an emergency basis, when journalists are in crisis. For example, drafting legal notices; bail applications; quashing FIR even before the charge-sheet is filed. The legal response needs to be proactive and immediate. This network needs to be built right down to the district and small-town level, since that is where journalists are the most vulnerable. There could also be a safe-house for journalists in distress, should the need arise. An E.mail group and perhaps WhatsApp group can be created for easier communication. 2. Legal Counsel: Build a network of lawyers to represent journalists, bloggers, activists, and citizens, in matters relating to FoE. Such representation will be at the level of all courts, ideally in every district. 3. Awareness Workshops: Training sessions for journalists, lawyers, police and other government functionaries to enhance awareness of rights. These workshops will provide an opportunity for journalists to learn about their fundamental rights and protections, and seek support immediately in case of violations. It will also enable lawyers to understand the ways in which criminal and civil law is used to silence and harass the media, and evolve creative ways to challenge it. Skill training on data protection, digital safety and cyber law also emerged as a need. 4. Understanding Procedures: Working with the police to understand the nitty gritty of investigation, forensics etc. This would enable thorough follow up and pressure from civil society, journalist associations etc to ensure that the investigations are carried out properly. In case they are not, CBI or SIT investigations can be demanded. It would be ideal to get a retired police officer on board, including in the proposed Advisory Group. 5. Legal Challenges: In lower courts as well as PILs: (i) Expanding the definition of “worker” in the Contract Labour Act, or Working Journalists’ Act – to include freelancers, contract journalists, stringers etc. (ii) Defamation, both civil and looking at watering down if not striking down criminal defamation. (iii) Challenge archaic laws on sedition, anti-terror, UAPA, Public Offences etc (iv) Challenge contempt of court, legislative privilege and other means use to restrict FoE and press freedom. 6. Create a database of violations of FoE: This database will document all major violations of journalists’ rights – from murders to legal muzzling – since 2000. An attempt will be made to update the status of each of the cases, in order to track impunity. This database will be a work in progress shared with participants at the city-level meetings and updated as and when fresh information is unearthed.