Eighteen press bodies on Wednesday wrote to Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, raising concerns about the shrinking media freedom in the country.
The letter was sent a day after the Delhi Police raided several journalists associated with NewsClick and later sealed the digital news organisation’s office following allegations that it received money to spread Chinese propaganda. The police have arrested the website’s editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha and human resources head Amit Chakravarty under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
NewsClick said that the police seized electronic devices from its office and homes of its employees without giving the owners a “hash value” of the devices. A hash value is a unique number used to ensure that a device and its data have not been tampered with.
On Wednesday, several journalists and activists held a protest against the police action at the Press Club Office in New Delhi.
The letter sent to the chief justice has been signed by the Digipub News India Foundation, Press Club of India, Foundation for Media Professionals, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Network of Women in Media, Free Speech Collective, Chandigarh Press Club, National Alliance of Journalists, Delhi Union of Journalists, Kerala Union of Working Journalists, Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists, Mumbai Press Club, Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, Press Association, Gauhati Press Club, Indian Journalists Union, Kolkata Press Club and Working News Camermen’s Association.
The letter said that confiscating mobile phones and computers of journalists without ensuring the integrity of their data violates the basic protocol.
The journalist bodies said that invoking the draconian anti-terror law in the case against NewsClick is “especially chilling”.
Journalism, they said, cannot be prosecuted as terrorism. “Enough instances in history abound to tell us where that eventually goes,” the letter added.
The press bodies said that the purpose of their letter is not to bypass the law but to ensure that “inherent malice” is checked when journalists are summoned and their devices are seized.
The associations wrote that the letter has been addressed to Chandrachud since he had said that the “press has a duty to speak truth to power and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction” and that India’s freedoms will be safe as long as journalists can play this role “without being chilled by a threat of reprisal”.
Chandrachud made the statement in April while quashing the Centre’s ban on Malayalam news channel MediaOne.
“The fact is that today, a large section of journalists in India finds itself working under the threat of reprisal,” the press bodies said. “And it is imperative that the judiciary confronts Power with a fundamental truth – that there is a Constitution to which we are all answerable.”
The associations told Chandrachud that subjecting journalists to a “concentrated criminal process” because the government does not approve their reportage is what he had identified as a threat to freedom of the press.
The letter also said that a method needs to be devised against police overreach, given “the repeated misuse of these powers”.
It noted that under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, journalists can spend months, if not years, in jail before they get bail.
“We already have the case of Siddique Kappan before us; he was incarcerated for two years and four months before finally securing bail,” the letter said. “The tragic death of Father Stan Swamy in custody is a reminder of how indifferent the authorities seem to have become towards human life under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’.”
It added: “Our fear is that state actions against the media have been taken beyond measure, and should they be allowed to continue in the direction they are headed, it may be too late for corrective or remedial steps. It is, therefore, our collective view that the Higher Judiciary must now intervene to put an end to the increasingly repressive use of investigating agencies against the media.”
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