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Freedom of Expression Under Threat in Five Poll-bound States: Report

The Free Speech Collective's report sheds light on the challenges faced by journalists, RTI activists, and citizens.

A report by the Free Speech Collective on the state of freedom of expression in the five states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana) that go to polls from November 7 show concerning revelations. 

The recent report by the Free Speech Collective sheds light on the challenges faced by journalists, RTI activists, and citizens in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, and Telangana. 

The polls are scheduled to take place in November, with each state having its own set of issues, but the common thread remains a growing clampdown on dissent and free speech.

Over the past five years, these states have witnessed the harassment, arrest, and even killing of journalists and RTI activists who dared to expose corruption, question authorities, or report on contentious issues. 

Censorship, whether driven by government policies or through legal actions, has played a significant role in stifling journalism in these regions. Journalists have found themselves slapped with cases ranging from sedition to defamation, leading to an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.

One stark example of the chilling effect on journalism is the case of Jaalam Singh, a reporter who has been incarcerated for over two months and charged with seven FIRs in Guna and Shivpuri districts of Madhya Pradesh, the report said. His arrest has sent shockwaves through the journalistic community, resulting in self-censorship and a lack of critical questioning that is essential for investigative journalism.

Suman Kirar, the wife of Jaalam Singh, expressed her disappointment and was quoted as saying, "Instead of questioning and protesting the arrest of a colleague, all these 'positive' stories are being published. A journalist who refused to take money or remain silent is still in jail."

The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the media landscape, with lockdowns affecting the publishing of print media in Madhya Pradesh. Journalists faced additional challenges in covering the pandemic, with instances of heavy-handed policing, such as the bulldozing of a journalist's residence in Telangana for reporting on violations of lockdown rules.

In Chhattisgarh, despite offering financial assistance to dependents of media persons who lost their lives to COVID-19, journalists faced multiple legal charges for their reporting on issues like sand mining and local corruption.

The passage of a media protection law and government assurances failed to protect journalists from false cases, as exemplified by cases against Sunil Namdev, a YouTuber running News Today, and Jitendra Jaiswal, a journalist running a digital news platform, Bharat Samman. Both journalists have faced numerous cases for their investigative work and are still struggling against legal proceedings.

Internet shutdowns have also become commonplace, despite guidelines set by the Supreme Court of India. Rajasthan, among the five states under review, experienced internet shutdowns on 72 occasions, primarily during protests.

In Mizoram, access to information has been restricted by the government and border security forces, hindering news coverage in border areas. The state shares a border with Manipur and has shown solidarity with the Kuki-Zo community amidst the ongoing conflict in Manipur, even in defiance of the Union home ministry's orders.

RTI activists have also faced curbs on their right to free speech, with some even being subjected to violence and attacks. Nalla Ramakrishnaiah, a 70-year-old RTI activist in Telangana, was killed after exposing irregularities in a land issue.

The deteriorating state of freedom of expression in India is evident in the growing number of journalists facing violence, arrest, or censorship, the report said. India ranks poorly in global indices measuring press freedom, with a ranking of 161 in the World Press Freedom Index and 11th on the Global Impunity Index 2022.

Despite a surge in hate speech and communal tensions, restrictions on freedom of expression are on the rise, affecting not just the news media but also artists, academics, comedians, writers, and citizens who express their views on social media or public forums, the report pointed out. 

The Indian National Congress, in its 2019 manifesto on "Media and Press Freedom," has promised reform in regulatory bodies to combat paid news, disinformation, and media monopolies, along with commitments to protect journalists working in conflict areas. However, free speech is not a central issue in the manifestos of other political parties.

As the five states prepare for elections, the report underscores the critical need to safeguard freedom of expression and protect those who continue to champion it. 

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