Indian journalists are denouncing the arrest of two colleagues who were charged with “spreading communal disharmony” after they attempted to cover violent attacks on Muslims by Hindu activists in the Indian state of Tripura earlier this month.
Many journalists see the police action and charges as an attempt by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to silence the media for reports that show the Hindu nationalist party-led government in a poor light.
Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha were in Tripura, a BJP-ruled state, on a reporting assignment for the Mumbai-based digital news channel HW News Network.
While working, Sakunia posted a tweet about the vandalization of a mosque. The next day, police arrested Sakunia and her colleague, saying they “incited communal violence by posting fake news in social media.”
A court in Tripura granted the two journalists bail one day after.
Last year, more than 60 journalists were arrested, detained, interrogated and served show-cause notices by police for their professional work in India, according to Free Speech Collective [FSC], a media rights group.
Journalist and independent media researcher Geeta Seshu said that journalists engaged mostly in investigative work are being targeted.
“The government arsenal to curtail press freedom includes arrests, criminal cases and interrogation of journalists along with raids on independent media houses,” Seshu, an FSC member, told VOA.
A national spokesman for the BJP, Delhi-based Gopal Krishna Agarwal, broadly dismissed the idea that the party is cracking down on reporters.
“Some rights activists, who are trying to defame BJP on this issue of police action against journalists, are from a communist background. On all issues, they stand against BJP. We do not like to comment against this charge they are slapping against BJP,” he told VOA.
But some observers see a pattern. Earlier this year, police filed criminal charges, including sedition, spreading “fake news” and threatening national integration, against eight journalists in connection with reports on farmers’ protests in Delhi. Six of the eight journalists faced the cases in four BJP-ruled states.
Last year, police in the BJP-ruled northern state of Uttar Pradesh arrested Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, when he traveled to the town of Hathras to report on the gang rape and murder of a low-caste Hindu girl. Charged under an anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and other accusations, the journalist has been in jail for more than a year.
VOA’s attempts to speak with an officer of the UP police were unsuccessful.
Arresting a journalist on his way to report a rape case is totally unjustified, says Sujata Madhok, general secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists.
“This is even worse as he has been charged under the UAPA which means he cannot get bail. An under-trial has a right to get a copy of his charge sheet. But he has not got it despite being in jail for over a year. How will his lawyer fight his case if he does not have a copy of the charge sheet?” Madhok asked.
“I believe draconian laws like UAPA should be repealed as they are being misused for political reasons, in case after case,” she said.
Since the Indian government revoked the special constitutional status of Indian-administered Kashmir in August 2019, threats of arrests, detention and harassment of journalists have risen to a new level there too, according to journalists from the centrally-controlled territory.
Last month, Srinagar-based freelance photojournalist Manan Gulzar Dar, who worked for Pacific Press, was arrested by India’s anti-terror National Investigations Agency, in connection with a militant conspiracy case in Kashmir, and is now in a Delhi jail.
Kashmiri photojournalist Aasif Sultan, who worked for local monthly magazine Kashmir Narrator, has been in a Srinagar jail since he was arrested by Jammu and Kashmir police in August 2018. Police charged him for “harboring known terrorists.”
Junaid Kathju, the principal correspondent of the news portal Kashmir Walla, said it is extremely difficult to work as a journalist in Kashmir now.
“Reporting in Kashmir is like walking on a razor’s edge. We don’t know today what will happen to us tomorrow,” Kathju told VOA.
“If a report appears to support the government on any issue, we are being labeled as anti-people and anti-Kashmir. If we describe in our reports the sufferings of the Kashmiri people, we are labeled as being on the side of the militants. We are tagged as anti-nationals and face the risks of being arrested or jailed.”
Journalists in the country are operating in an atmosphere of “indifference, extreme hostility and intimidation,” the FSC’s Seshu said.
“And, the result is self-censorship, fear — as we see in conflict areas like Kashmir — and shrinking space for independent news-gathering and dissemination. Impunity is one of the most important reasons why police harassment can happen and continues to occur,” she said.
Several rights activists noted that the police in different BJP-ruled states are harassing journalists at the behest of the Hindu nationalist party.
Delhi University teacher and writer Apoorvanand, who uses one name, said that India’s BJP-led federal government and the governments in the states ruled by the party have decided that the act of collecting and communicating information will be criminalized.
“They want to send a message that if you want to report, you would be seen as spreading hate and violence. This is exactly what was done in Delhi and UP,” Apoorvanand told VOA. “It will make reporting and fact-finding impossible in India.”
India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders has declined in recent years. This year India was ranked 142nd among 180 countries.
While releasing the latest World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders identified India as “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.”
Daanish Bin Nabi in Srinagar contributed to this report.