Karnika Kohli/The Wire

Harrasment and cases against Journalists during COVID 19 pandemic

Over the last several years, Indiaʼs rank in the annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has sunk lower and lower. The Index is “based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region”. In 2020, India was placed 142nd out of 180 countries.

The COVID-19 lockdown has not improved the situation. Far from it it has rather empowered and emboldened the Indian government, security forces and private citizens to suppress freedom of speech, cement the oppression of marginalised groups and prevent reporting on government mismanagement and human rights violations at all costs. The situation for journalists under COVID 19 has been a complex one. First of all, their circumstances have been made more precarious by the economic uncertainty caused by the nationwide lockdown, which has caused layoffs, newspaper closures and unprecedented instability for freelance workers of all kinds. Secondly, lockdown has,by its very nature, restricted movement, and the exceptions declared for journalists by the government to allow them freedom to report have frequently been flouted by the police. Beyond these practical implications, the governmentʼs attitude to reporting on the COVID 19 pandemic has been defined by defensiveness and manipulation from the very beginning. On 24 March2020, even before the first, three week nationwide lockdown was announced, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a video conference with over twenty editors and owners of newspapers and other media channels, in which he encouraged them “to publish inspiring and positive stories” about COVID 19.

In the weeks and months that have followed, the consequences of flouting this “suggestion” have been made exceedingly clear, as has been documented in this report. Not only have individual incidents such as those recorded here demonstrated the severity of the governmentʼs reaction to criticism, but the government has also made significant attempts to stifle reporting on a systematic level. Just a week after the lockdown was announced, for example, on 1 April 2020, the Indian government asked the Supreme Court to pass an order that the media should be forbidden from releasing any information about the pandemic before ascertaining a factual position from the government. The court responded with an order, saying “We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media [to] refer to and publish the official version about the developments.” The reference to the Disaster Management Act, 2005 in this same order has proved an ominous precursor to the many cases of arrest and detention of journalists who supposedly disseminated “unverified news capable of causing panic” under the lockdown.

This report documents arrests, detentions, assaults and harassment against journalists over the lockdown period (from 24th March 2020 to the time of publication). The diversity of the individuals featured here demonstrates that no category of “human rights defender” has escaped the Indian governmentʼs systematic suppression of free speech during this period, whether they are employed by a major media house or freelance; working in a city or rural area; reporting on the COVID-19 response or simply carrying out their usual journalistic duties. As always, the journalistic community has been united in its condemnation of these abuses, and many of the cases have seen official statements from press organisations and journalistic bodies.

However, there has been no such abundance of official intervention, with many promises of investigation or review so far unfulfilled. It is important to remember, even among the chaos caused byCOVID-19, that the issues that journalists and the country as a whole were facing before lockdown continue to threaten democratic values and human rights. Indeed, the marginalization of certain communities in India has in many cases been amplified by the lockdown–most prominently, perhaps, for Indiaʼs vast informal work force and migrant labourer communities, who in many cases lost access to their livelihoods, homes and freedom with just a few hoursʼ notice. Meanwhile, in Kashmir, citizens have been facing debilitating restrictions since long before the COVID-19 lockdown began.

Throughout the pandemic, residents of Kashmir have been unable to access vital information online and now, in June, the government has launched a fresh attack on the very foundations of journalism through a new media policy that will empower the government to decide what “fake or anti-national” news is. Journalism is a vital resource for the community, particularly in times such as these. The unprecedented circumstances in which we are currently living have highlighted both the value of frontline reporting and the extreme dangers faced by those on that frontline. The suppression of journalists presents a Catch-22, in which public awareness of the abuses against journalists actually relies on their own reporting of the abuses. Now then, more than ever, it is vital that we protect journalistic freedom.