A multi-pronged attack on the press is currently underway and a concerted effort is being made to portray the media as being dangerous to society, Press Club of India President Umakant Lakhera said on Monday.
He made the statement during a meeting held on “Creeping Infringement of Media Freedom and Assault on Personal Liberty on Journalists” in Delhi. The meeting was organised by the Press Club of India along with the Editors Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Association, Delhi Union of Working Journalists, Digipub News India Foundation and Working News Cameramen’s Association.
Lakhera said that the current era is the most dangerous one for journalism and journalists. “An Emergency has not been declared, but all its features are visible,” he added.
Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, said that the country is in the middle of a full-blown attack on media freedom. “In the future, the practice of resorting to illegal procedure is only likely to increase, as seen in the [Alt News co-founder] Mohammed Zubair case,” he said.
The Delhi Police have booked Zubair for allegedly hurting religious sentiments, causing disappearance of evidence, violating foreign funding norms and taking part in a criminal conspiracy. Several press bodies have criticised his arrest and called for his unconditional release.
At Monday’s meeting, Varadarajan said that fake news had been manufactured in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and noted that this has now been “escalated to an industrial scale”.
“The reason why fact-checking is a vulnerable profession in India, the reason why Alt News is being targeted, is because they have become a great obstacle to the government’s attempt to shaping public opinion,” Varadarajan said. He added that a pattern had emerged of targeting Muslim journalists.
Meanwhile, TN Ninan, the chairperson of Business Standard Private Limited, suggested that a legal defence fund for journalists should be set up.
‘Zubair’s arrest based on trumped-up charges’
In a resolution passed during the meeting, the organisers said that a “plethora of FIRs” against journalists and raids by the Enforcement Directorate on media offices “sends an ominous signal” to the future of the profession as a whole.
“The arrest of the Alt News co-founder on what we understand is based on exaggerated and trumped up charges,” it said. “On the other hand, those who actually make hate speeches are moving around freely.”
The resolution also said that the Central Press Accreditation Committee’s new guidelines on accreditation with the Press Information Bureau and the denial of accreditation to over 300 journalists were worrisome developments.
As per the new guidelines notified in February, journalists may lose their accreditation if they act in a manner “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India”. Accreditation may also be suspended or withdrawn if a person acts contrary to “decency or morality” or due to cases involving contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Accreditation with the Press Information Bureau allows journalists access to government offices in Delhi. Accreditation is also needed in order to cover some events attended by the prime minister and the president.
“We request the government to restore access of coverage of government events to the media as before in the interests of a robust democracy,” the Press Club of India resolution said on Monday. “We also reiterate that the Constitution is supreme and it applies to one and all. The cherry picking by law enforcement agencies does send a chilling effect to the media as a whole.”