On World Press Freedom Day the crisis unleashed by the Covid pandemic has led to intimidation and harassment of media personnel in India.
Assaults against working journalists and media outlets, especially those criticizing government policies and actions, have been on the rise in India especially during the current lockdown.
Under the cover of Covid-19
Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, a digital journalist and founder of “SimpliCity”, a news portal in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, was arrested on April 18 for running two news articles related to Covid-19.
The world is celebrating World Press Freedom Day.
But we as Indians don't have much to celebrate as India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries.
— CPJ India | کاروان (@TheKarwaan) May 3, 2020
Pandian and his colleague, Jerald Aruldas were held by city police for reporting on stories around alleged government corruption around the food aid distribution system and how doctors in another city, Coimbatore, faced food shortages while working during the lockdown.
“It was a very intimidating experience. There is an air of fear in the local media. Every media person is now scared of covering news related to COVID-19,” said Aruldas.
Last week, Zubair Ahmed, a freelance journalist, was arrested by the Andaman Nicobar police for posting a tweet about COVID-19 from his Twitter handle.
In his tweet, he questioned why families were placed under home quarantine for merely speaking over the phone with patients affected by corona virus.
“He posted an inciting, false and instigating tweet to disrupt public harmony, violating government order and to create panic among the public,” said police chief Deependra Pathak.
In late March when the lockdown was in place, a senior journalist, Ravi Reddy, from a prominent daily was allegedly abused and assaulted by police even after he showed them papers identifying himself as a journalist.
Around the same time, Delhi journalist Navin Kumar tweeted that the police had harassed him and. After taking away his car keys, snatching his wallet and phone, he was beaten and abused.
World Press Freedom Day is an embarrassing day for India as we hold a shameful rank of 142 out of 180 countries. The rampant press freedom violations and FIRs against journalists is going to further push us closer to the state of N.Korea which is at the lowest 180
— Khyati Shree (@KhyatiShree_) May 3, 2020
“Indian police must cease harassing and attacking them, and authorities must investigate attacks against journalists and ensure that those responsible are held to account,” Aliya Iftikhar, Committee to Protect Journalists senior Asia researcher told RFI.
Though all of them have been released on bail, their cases are not isolated. Across the country, media personnel have been facing violence, including intimidation, detention and arrests.
Wither press freedom?
Journalists in Kashmir, for instance, have been summoned to police stations and forced to present themselves to explain their stories.
On April 20, the police filed a complaint against Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a draconian anti-terrorism law under which a person can be designated a terrorist and jailed for up to seven years.
Her work has been published in “The Washington Post” and Al Jazeera.
The police also booked journalist and author Gowhar Geelani for “glorifying terrorism” and indulging in activities deemed “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
In his plea, Geelani has described the complaint against him as “vindictive and calibrated to wreck vengeance.”
These were not isolated incidents. It followed on the heels of a similar case where the police issued a summons to Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with ‘The Hindu’ newspaper.
Ashiq’s report was about the family members of two militants who were refused the bodies of their deceased kin.
“Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased,” Reporters without Borders (RSF) said in a statement.