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Is the Press Really Free in India today?

Nirmolika Sangha writes, in the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult for the media to do its jobs in India. Journalists have been bullied and threatened to take down stories that are critical of the government

Last week, Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist, was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police in Delhi, for a tweet that supposedly had objectionable comments on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Kanojia had shared a video on Twitter of a woman who claimed that she had sent Yogi Adityanath a marriage proposal. The police arrested him because he allegedly tried to malign the image of the UP Chief Minister.

This incident once again brings into question the freedom of the press in India and sheds light on the increasing crackdown on the media in recent times. Twitter was up in arms after his arrest, with criticism for the UP police pouring in from all sides. Kanojia wasn’t the only one arrested. Ishika Singh, head of a private news channel Nation Live, and its editor Anuj Shukla, were picked up by the police too, for holding a debate on the same video. An FIR was filed against Kanojia under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code for defamation and under Section 66 of the Indian Information Technology Act for computer related offences which are done dishonestly or fraudulently.

The Supreme Court objected to this high handedness shown by the UP Police and ordered Kanojia to be released. Arresting a journalist for what the police may think maligns the Chief Minister is not only a clear abuse of the law, but also an attack on press freedom. While a difference of opinion on the content of the video and how it was shared may have arisen, arresting a journalist and charging him for doing his job is very worrying for the functioning of the media in a country. While one sees this kind of media censorship in authoritarian and troubled states, this does not bode well for a healthy democracy like India.

In the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult for the media to do its jobs in India. Journalists have been bullied and threatened to take down stories that are critical of the government by loyalists of the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. Complaints against journalists have shifted from defamation cases to more serious criminal cases being filed against them that could land them up in jail, as was the case with Kanojia. The Washington Post, in a piece titled ‘In Modi’s India, Journalists Face Bullying, Criminal Cases And Worse’, points out that the press freedom has worsened under Modi, which is causing media organisations to self-censor so as not to offend the government and avoid serious action being taken against them.

India has steadily been falling on the World Press Freedom Index for the last three years, going from 133 on 2016, to 140 in 2019, below states like Afghanistan, Palestine and South Sudan. The media is an important organ of a democracy and acts like a watchdog, provided it is given the freedom to do its job effectively. By bullying journalists into taking down stories, or arresting them with jail time and charging them with serious offences, the state is curbing this freedom. Every time journalists step out to their job, they will always have to watch their backs and think twice about reporting issues, so as to not land up in jail. While it is okay to be critical of the media, waging a war against it in not in the best interests of a democratic nation.

 

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