From sedition cases against Jawaharlal Nehru University students for allegedly chanting anti-national slogans to attacks on journalists in Chhattisgarh, India has been having a bad year for freedom of speech.
Eleven cases of sedition have been filed against 19 people in merely the first three months of 2016. No cases under this category were filed in the same quarter in the last two years, according to a report compiled by the media watchdog The Hoot.
The report, released this week, points out that the sedition charges against six students of Delhi’s JNU were only the first of a series of cases filed against people across the country – ranging from Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi to Asaduddin Owaisi, the member of parliament from Hyderabad.
Defamation cases involving politicians also jumped: 27 cases were filed in the first quarter of the year compared to just two cases filed in the corresponding period last year, according to The Hoot.
During the same period, reporters around the country have been under attack in several places. In the first three months of this year, 14 attacks on media personnel have been reported, often resulting in their equipment being damaged. In February, Karun Mishra, the Bureau Chief of the Jansandesh Times, was shot dead in Sultanpur.
Last month, two journalists were arrested in Chhattisgarh. This comes in the wake of reports that as many as nine journalists covering the JNU agitation were contacted for questioning by the Delhi Police. Some of these reporters said that that police personnel even came knocking on their doors.
The Editors’ Guild even issued a statement last week claiming that “not a single journalist” is working without fear or pressure in Bastar, the district in Chhattisgarh most affected by Maoist violence. “There is pressure from Maoists as well on the journalists working in the area,” said the body, which has more than 200 editors as its members.
“There is a general perception that every single journalist is under the government scanner and all their activities are under surveillance. They hesitate to discuss anything over the phone because, as they say, ‘The police is listening to every word we speak.’”
Reports suggest that journalists in Bastar are being followed or their phones have been tapped by authorities to track their movements while others claim that vigilante groups on the ground are getting a free-run in harassing and filing false cases against those reporters who dare to speak out about the violence in the red-corridor region.
Cases of censorship have also risen this year compared to the corresponding period in the last two years. While only two such instances were reported in the first quarter of 2015, the tally was 17 this year. These cases range from Urdu writers being asked to declare that their writings would not criticise the government or the country to comedian Kiku Sharda being arrested, bailed out and then re-arrested for mimicking godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim in Haryana.
While threats to freedom of speech are not new, the intention may be different this time. As social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express in February, when the government swooped down on JNU student leaders:
The government does not want to just crush dissent; it wants to crush thinking, as its repeated assaults on universities demonstrate... Nothing that the students did poses nearly as much threat to India, as the subversion of freedom and judgement this government represents. The honourable ministers should realise that if this is a debate about nationalism, it is they, rather than JNU, who should be in the dock. They have threatened democracy; that is the most anti-national of all acts.