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Media Organisations Have Been Intimidated but Need to Fight Back

Suhit K Sen |
The crisis of democracy in India would be less acute if the media stood its ground, especially when journalists are attacked by the regime or with its blessings.
Media SC

The current regime in India continues to wage war against all critical voices. This, despite having cowed or suborned significant sections of the mainstream media—none more so than in television. Among the most recent attacks is the one against vocal critic Rana Ayyub, the investigative reporter and columnist who was prevented from travelling to the United Kingdom and Italy on 29 March to deliver talks until a court rubbished the charges against her and allowed her to go.

Aakar Patel was not so lucky. The former journalist and head of Amnesty India was prevented from travelling to the United States on 6 April, again to deliver a lecture based on a lookout circular issued by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). A Delhi court allowed him to travel and asked the authorities to apologise to him. On appeal, Patel was prevented from travelling again, and on 12 April, the Centre gave the CBI permission to prosecute him in a case relating to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act. Patel has said he was not informed about the circular and is being targeted because of his recent book—Price of the Modi Years—which is critical of the regime.

Even less fortunate was a journalist against whose Twitter handle the Delhi Police registered a case after he and six other journalists were assaulted while reporting on an unauthorised meeting in Burari, Delhi, on 6 April. Several people, including the infamous Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, a provocateur based in Ghaziabad, delivered hate speeches against Muslims at the meeting. FIRs have been recorded against Saraswati and others, but no arrests have followed.

Even more unfortunate perhaps is the case of Kashmir journalist Aasif Sultan. A special National Investigation Agency court granted him bail on 5 April after spending three years and eight months in jail. The court observed there was no evidence to support the charge of harbouring terrorists brought against him. The authorities did not release him, however. On 10 April, he was “re-arrested” after being charged under stringent provisions of the Public Safety Act, 1978, applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. He had, thus, been illegally incarcerated for four days.

Many other journalists, who have not crawled when asked to crawl by the regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, have been proceeded against. Despite much heart-warming rhetoric about bail being the norm and jail the exception, it only seems to work in favour of the apologists and partisans of the regime. For instance, Siddique Kappan, a journalist working for a Malayalam media organisation, has been in jail for over a year and a half after being held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. He was arrested in October 2020 while travelling to Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to report on the gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old woman.

Practically all authoritarian/majoritarian populist leaders and groups claim they are victims and are discriminated against by Left/liberal regimes and/or media groups colonised by “woke” prejudices.

This is, of course, a colossal lie. In India, majoritarian Hindutva peddlers are aggressors, seeking to intimidate minorities with tactics reminiscent of the Nazis. The media predominantly supports the present regime and criminal elements it encourages and facilitates. In the Anglo-American world, when confronted with irrefutable charges of systemic racism, the White establishment raises the risible bogey of establishment and media wokeness—though it is precisely the establishment, backed by substantial sections of the media, that is racist. The same is true of the “hard men” in places as diverse as Hungary, Turkey, Belarus, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Brazil, who invoke ultra-nationalist majoritarian slogans that suggest favoured majority communities are in danger.

In the Indian media, as the above examples illustrate, the authorities have sedulously cultivated a policy of pushing the envelope. In Ayyub’s case, victimisation was based on a lookout circular issued by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a money laundering case. Ayyub was given the green light to travel by the Delhi High Court, which quashed the circular and observed the ED had failed to contradict Ayyub’s claim that she had appeared before the agency whenever she was summoned. The circular, the court said, infringed her human rights and was “devoid of merits”.

In Patel’s case, additional chief metropolitan magistrate Pawan Kumar of Delhi made strong observations against the CBI. He asked the agency to apologise to Patel for the circular, calling it a deliberate attempt to restrict his rights, suggesting that it had been issued without sufficient application of mind.

As for the Burari and Kappan cases, in the former, victims of serious assault were not given adequate protection by one of the most notorious law-enforcement agencies in the country—the Delhi Police. And in the latter, a journalist going about his legitimate business has been forced to spend over 18 months in jail, while a man accused in a murder case—Ashish Mishra, son of a Union minister—walked out on bail in about four months. And Sultan’s illegal detention and “re-arrest” demonstrate an institutional degradation that the public has unfortunately come to accept.

This brings us to the comments made by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on 12 April at a media briefing after the ‘2+2’ meeting also involving External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. In what amounted to an aside to the Ukraine-focused agenda, Blinken expressed concerns about India’s human rights record and referenced Nehru while calling on “democracies [to] stand together and speak with one voice to defend the values that we share”.

New Delhi ignored the remark about the US “monitoring developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials”, a euphemistic reference, given that abuses and intimidation are systemic and inspired from the apex of the political system. New Delhi usually bridles at critical references to its record, jealously defending the country’s “internal affairs”.

Then again, it is possible to dismiss the US when it is the messenger by referring to its institutional racism. In fact, especially since Donald Trump became president, the US Right has been extremely active in attacking women’s rights in the shape of anti-abortion laws and minority rights through several state laws restricting voting rights.

Nevertheless, here in India, we should note two things. One, institutional capture has not been possible in the US on a large scale, evidenced by many judges who have upheld constitutional positions against Trump’s onslaughts, despite being appointed by him or his cronies. More important here, though, is the refusal of a large section of the US media to pander to the political establishment. Despite media channels that outrageously facilitated the imbecilic falsehoods of the US right, many media organisations called it out.
The crisis of democracy in India would perhaps be less acute if media organisations stood up to the regime, especially when journalists are attacked and hounded by the regime or with its blessings.

The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.

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