Over the past 16 months, India has witnessed 54 reported attacks on journalists, at least three cases of television news channels being banned, 45 internet shutdowns, and 45 sedition cases against individuals and groups.

These are some of the findings of the India Freedom Report released by The Hoot, a non-profit media watchdog, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, which falls on Wednesday (May 3). The study assesses the level of press freedom in India from January 2016 to April 2017, and analyses the corresponding restrictions on general societal freedoms.

India has a poor record when it comes to freedom of the press and ranked 136th among 180 countries on this year’s Wold Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. Last year, it had ranked three spots higher.

The Hoot report describes an “overall sense of shrinking liberty” in India because of restrictions on the rights of citizens to information, internet access and online freedom, as well as various personal freedoms. In this atmosphere, it says, the press cannot be truly free.

Attacks on journalists

Between January 2016 and April 2017, at least 54 attacks on journalists were reported in the media across India. The Hoot suspects the number would be much higher if unreported cases were also included. In addition, seven journalists were reportedly killed in this period, with at least one of those deaths linked to the reporter’s work.

The majority of these attacks, according to the report, were perpetrated by the police (nine incidents), leaders of political parties and their supporters (eight), criminals representing the illegal construction, sand mining and coal mining industries (five), mobs resisting media coverage (nine) and even lawyers (four). Several of these incidents involved multiple journalists being beaten or attacked.

The Hoot report also takes note of at least 25 instances of media persons being threatened in the course of carrying out their work. Here too, the perpetrators included political party members, the police, various vigilante groups, lawyers, Twitter trolls and the mining mafia. The list of 25 journalists includes Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam, who was forced to move out of Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh, in February 2016 following threats and intimidation from members of the Samajik Ekta Manch, a group of self-styled anti-Maoists.

All of these attacks and threats, according to the report, indicate that investigative reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous in India. What’s more, the perpetrators tend to go scot-free – in 2014, for instance, only 32 people were arrested in 114 cases of attacks on journalists.

Censorship and internet shutdowns

The Hoot report has listed several instances of press censorship in the past 16 months. These include Sakshi News and No 1 News being blocked temporarily on cable television in Andhra Pradesh – allegedly at the behest of the state government – for their coverage of the agitation for caste-based reservations by the Kapu farming community in June.

Later, in November, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered a 24-hour ban on NDTV India for allegedly revealing strategic information about the Indian Army’s operations during a terrorist attack on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in January that year. The ministry later put the ban on hold.

In the print media, Kashmir Reader faced harassment and censorship after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani by security forces in July. The newspaper’s offices were raided, their printing presses closed down and in October, the state government banned the publication for three months.

Beyond the press, the Hoot report has also taken note of censorship of other media, including the internet, cinema and the arts. There were 31 instances of the internet being shut down in various parts of India last year, and 14 cases this year. Most of the shutdowns were imposed by state governments to prevent or in response to unlawful assemblies, riots or public disorder. Jammu and Kashmir led the count with the highest number of internet shutdowns in the past year.

In these 16 months, the Central Board for Film Certification censored or blocked films for a range of questionable reasons, including homophobia, abusive language, use of Pakistani artistes, “depicting female fantasies”, “showing female innerwear”, “showing a state in a bad light”, “the director’s accent” and even “resemblance” to the prime minister. In addition, several cultural events – such as the Udaipur Film Fest and the Kerala Litfest – were attacked by members of vigilante groups.

However, the Hoot report makes special mention of the Bombay, Delhi and Kerala High Courts for upholding the artistic freedom of filmmakers whose films came under attack.

Forty cases of sedition were filed against individuals and groups in 2016, leading to nationwide protests. Credit: Arun Kumar / HT
Forty cases of sedition were filed against individuals and groups in 2016, leading to nationwide protests. Credit: Arun Kumar / HT

Sedition and defamation

The report describes 2016 as the year sedition “went viral” with 40 cases being filed against individuals or groups in various courts – while five cases have been filed in the first four months of this year. (Under law, sedition is any act by words, signs, visible representation or otherwise that brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt the government.)

It was also the year the Supreme Court passed several orders on defamation and sedition. In May 2016, the apex court upheld the validity of the criminal defamation law, stating that “the right to free speech is not absolute” and does not give anyone the right to hurt another’s reputation. However, in August, it clarified that mere criticism does not constitute defamation. A month later, the court reiterated this point, stating that criticism of the government cannot amount to sedition or defamation under the law.

Despite all this, in the first three months of 2017, the government of Tamil Nadu filed at least 16 cases of defamation against the media.

Dilution of RTI

Another major concern raised by the Hoot report is dilution of the Right to Information Act. Despite growing incidences of whistleblowers being murdered, a proposed amendment to the Act seeks to nullify pleas submitted by an applicant after his or her death. The Central government and political parties continue to resist being listed as public authorities under the Act, which would bring them within the ambit of the transparency law, and a high proportion of applications for information are rejected without valid reasons.