Emphasising on the union government’s autocratic character is evident in the dramatic surge in the number of sedition cases registered across the country, OSHI SAXENA illustrates the malicious tendency of media coverage of sedition cases, contrasting them with the pre-2014 period, and argues that the same is inconsistent with the legal treatment of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code by the judiciary.
THE Government of India today appears to be at loggerheads with its own citizens. The exponential rise in the number of sedition cases since 2014 showcases how the draconian law is used as an instrument to stifle the civil liberties and fundamental rights of citizens, very much akin to the colonial era.
The law has withstood the test of time in India across regimes, right from Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to Narendra Modi. The union government’s reckless and selective implementation of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) aims to silence dissent as well as to demonize and prosecute people who raise their voice against and question the administration, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds or cultural affiliation. Under the present regime, this section of the IPC has been used to blatantly undermine Article 19 of the Constitution of India, which grants each citizen the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reign is gradually molding India’s government institutions and social order to its will, marginalizing resistance and jeopardizing the country’s democratic system through a cocktail of Hindu nationalism and authoritarianism. Section 124A has been instrumental in combating what the ruling dispensation has constructed as ‘anti-national’ sentiment exercised by a section of the public.
Its ends are furthered by the trend of the mainstream news media’s representation of Indian nationalism and sedition cases becoming increasingly shrill and distorted since 2014. This stands in complete contrast to the terminologies used in legal proceedings pertaining to the same sedition cases.
Also read: Lawmakers Must Examine: Does Free India Need a Sedition Law?
Aisha Sultana’s Case
Aisha Sultana, a filmmaker from Lakshadweep, has recently been booked under Section 124A and conduct against national integration under Section 153B of the IPC. Her crime: On June 7, during a discussion on Lakshadweep and policy changes on a local media channel, Sultana criticized the union territory’s administrator Praful Khoda Patel’s COVID management, and claimed that the union government had deployed a ‘bio-weapon’ against the union territory and its people, which was leading to the spike in COVID cases in the islands.
At this juncture, it is instructive to understand that Patel, a Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) politician and former legislator and state minister from Gujarat, has become a deeply unpopular and controversial figure during his brief tenure in the otherwise peaceful and nondescript union territory of Lakshadweep due to the radical and far-reaching policies that he has sought to enforce in an undemocratic manner. The residents of the islands have been extremely vociferous in raising questions regarding the regressive regulations pushed by Patel and expressed resistance to their ramming through amidst the pandemic.
Section 124A in this case was, therefore, utilized by the union government as a tool to deviate the dialogue around Patel’s regressive policies as well as suppress the voices of dissent by making an example out of Sultana.
Talking to The Leaflet, Advocate Fazeela Ibrahim of the Minicoy island of Lakshadweep, who has been quite vocal about the problematic nature of the four controversial draft laws introduced by Patel, highlights the intent behind the ongoing protests:
“It is evident that there is a political agenda in silencing voices of dissent raised against the ruling regime. The plight of the islanders is very pertinent to note, as the geographical structure and social standards of living are very distinct from the rest of the country and so is the mechanism of adhering to COVID protocols. The statements in Aisha’s case were based on a similar context and nowhere close to what she has been accused of.”
Mainstream media often plays a significant role in validating the underlying propaganda attached to these charges. The coverage of sedition cases is more often than not done in the context of a communal angle, intentionally crossing the boundaries of privacy by publicizing their personal details in the public domain in order to stir up controversy and discredit the voices of dissent.
The case of Sultana is a classic example of such malicious propaganda spread through mainstream media, attempting to divert public discourse from the valid concerns of the citizens of Lakshadweep by fixating on the sedition charges against her.
Also read: Silencing Dissent: Misreading of Sedition Law Leads to Misuse to Shut Up Critics
Media Representations Of Sedition Charges – Pre-Modi Era versus Today:
The conception of anyone being anti-national has been associated with numerous manifestations of resistance, but also, more broadly, an increase in polarization in Indian politics.
Every political party, at some point, while being in the opposition has criticized the rationality behind retaining the draconian sedition law. However, once in power, the same party has willingly exploited the same to quash dissent.
The long-simmering dilemma of moral authority in India’s media landscape has erupted today. The media seems to be bound by self-censorship so as to work in the best interest of the ruling party. In Modi’s India, a narrative of authoritarianism laced with Hindu nationalism has been employed in mainstream media coverage while reporting sedition cases, with a specific objective of suppressing voices of dissent, wherein those under the radar are often branded as ‘anti-national’. This kind of propaganda usually spreads fast and turns into a massive outrage.
Though the coverage of these cases may lack facts, there are multitudes of people who blindly believe in it without bothering to verify the facts behind it, and frame their opinion on the basis of the same.
According to a sedition database created by civil society organization Article 14, 65 percent of the 10,938 Indians accused of sedition over the past decade were charged after May 2014, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came into power at the center.
Also read: Why the Supreme Court must declare Sedition Law unconstitutional
Back in 2011, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested under charges of sedition in response to his allegedly offensive sketches presenting the National Emblem and the Parliament in a derogatory light. A cursory analysis of the media coverage of this case shows that the representation was not be vilifying in nature, and depicted both sides of the story with pertinent arguments in support of Trivedi.
ABP News reported the case with the following description; “Yet another cartoonist has become the victim of the ongoing policing by political parties. Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist, was arrested for allegedly posting ugly and obscene content on his web portal.”
Times Now’s online coverage of the case contains the following description: “A Massive controversy has erupted over the arrest of little-known cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in Mumbai. Despite being slapped with sedition charges, Trivedi still stands by his work and says his basic rights are being infringed upon. But renowned cartoonists say that Aseem has indeed crossed the line and his cartoons amount to disrespect of our national symbols.”
India TV reported the sedition case against Trivedi with the description, “Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, charged with sedition, walked out of jail Wednesday, a day after he was granted bail. The case against India Against Corruption (IAC) activist had sparked outrage in the country”
While the case coverage was certainly far from perfect and not balanced, it was not sensationalized and adhered to journalistic ethics and norms. The terminology used in the coverage was based purely on the legality of sedition charges and did not resort to labeling Trivedi as a threat to the nation, unlike today.
Contrast this with the case of Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old environmental activist, who was charged with sedition in the ‘toolkit’ case by Delhi Police in February 2021.
Ravi was booked under Sections 124A, 153A (promoting hatred among various communities on social/cultural/religious grounds), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC. She was also accused of having affiliations with Khalistani insurgents and conspiring to ‘promote disaffection against the Indian state’.
In its television coverage of the case, Times Now leaked Ravi’s personal WhatsApp chats to the public domain, connected her to pro-Khalistani groups, and propagated a damaging narrative against her of being anti-national.
ABP News titled one of its video reports covering the case “Evidence reveal Disha involved in anti-national activities”. The description of another report on the case stated: “[translated from the original Hindi] Disha Ravi, who was caught by the police in the violence case during the farmers’ agitation, has been sent to police remand for 5 days. Also, now the search for Disha’s associates Nikita Jacob and Shantanu is on. But the information given by the police so far in this regard is very shocking. Because along with the violence of 26 January, every single script was prepared to defame India on the international stage.”
India TV’s sensationalist coverage is evident in its clickbait-containing video report title “Toolkit Case: Shocking new video of Disha Ravi surfaces”.
The media trial severely disturbed Ravi and she had to seek help from the Delhi High Court to restrain some media channels from leaking details of the police probe against her and her private messages in a prejudiced manner. After addressing her plea, the High Court directed news media organizations, to ensure that no leaked investigation sources were televised since it could jeopardize the investigation, and validate the authenticity of the information derived from different sources. It agreed that “[t]he recent coverage definitely shows there is sensationalised reporting by the media”.
Also read: Delhi Court’s Order on Disha Ravi’s Bail is Reminder that India’s Sedition Law Needs Revision
Contrast In Terminologies Used In Media And In Court
In the context of Section 124A and its recent implications, most of the Indian news media has often become a passive conspirator of malicious insinuation, trading journalistic integrity to get into the good books of the ruling regime. Through the power of intimidation, the ruling regime has eroded freedom of speech, ensuring that the media produces news that is accommodating to the party’s interests and distracts the public’s attention from the government’s shortcomings.
Lately, visual representation and treatment of sedition cases, ranging from the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ sedition case in 2016 to the very recent Aisha Sultana case, have always been in the format of high-pitched debates, shrill fulminated outrage, and outlandish proclamations on news channels which bank upon the same for increasing viewership.
Sadly, for the news media, which has always been considered an enabler of democracy and known to function as a watchdog of the State, representations entwine with vindictive promulgation, which validates the terminologies used in the coverage. The public’s perception of these cases has been heavily influenced as a result of such coverage. This has created an environment wherein people fear raising their voice against the ruling regime and unconsciously endorse the outlook proposed by the media.
On the other hand, the Indian judiciary, despite some valid criticism, has still upheld the sovereignty of the right to freedom of speech and expression on most occasions.
On the usage of extreme terminologies by the media, laced with vituperative propaganda in sedition cases, Advocate Ibrahim says; “The debate about anti-national elements and propaganda is always held on the outside and such terms are never even used by the opposing party in a courtroom to counter the case. The arguments are always based on the legal context and the possibility of inciting disorder and hatred.”
Recently, the Supreme Court, in its verdict in the case of Vinod Dua v. Union of India & Ors. (WP(Crl) No. 154 of 2020) explicitly stated that “the freedom to voice informed and rational criticism is a source of strength rather than a weakness for a nation.” It reiterated its landmark judgment in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (AIR 1962 SC 955), stating that a citizen has the right to criticize the government without inciting violence, nullifying the sedition charges leveled against journalist Vinod Dua in June 2021.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, the rate of conviction for people accused of sedition has been consistently falling between 2016 and 2019, reaching a low of 3.3% in 2019, even as the number of cases registered rose over this period. This makes it clear that a large majority of sedition cases are frivolous and baseless. However, the pre-trial detention and trial themselves are akin to punishment, as the media coverage of these cases often descend into media trials of the accused in the volatile realm of 24-hour news channels.
Also read: The Case to Amend Sedition Law, India’s Self-Inflicted Wound
No wonder, then, that reforming Section 124A, if not scrapping it from the IPC altogether, has been a long-standing demand of several citizen groups over the years. However, since 2014 there has emerged a ploy adopted by the Indian news media, backed by the ruling party, to instill right-wing prejudice into the masses through their representations, to an extent where rationality and facts are considered to be liberal propaganda.
The fight for viewership has fostered a battle that has systematically deteriorated the credibility of Indian journalism. Whereas the fourth pillar of democracy was earlier recognized for its editorial integrity, it has descended into an abhorrent forum fed by sensationalism and marginalization. Meaningful concerns related to the misuse of Section 124A will never be addressed in the present media milieu.
The article was originally published in The Leaflet.
(Oshi Saxena is pursuing her master’s degree in journalism from Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, and is an intern with The Leaflet. The views expressed are personal.)