The International Press Institute and Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists on Tuesday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drop all charges against journalists, including those under the draconian sedition laws, that have been imposed on them for their work.
In a joint statement, the global media groups asked the prime minister to take immediate steps to ensure that journalists can work “without harassment and fear of reprisal”. Journalistic work, they said, cannot be equated to sedition or undermining security.
The press associations also accused Modi government of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to silence its critics. As many as 55 journalists were targeted for covering the pandemic in India between 25 March – when lockdown was first imposed and 31 May – a report by Rights and Risks Analysis Group has shown, the letter noted.
“The number of cases filed against journalists have increased enormously after the spread of the pandemic. The health crisis is being used as an excuse to silence those who have exposed shortcoming in the government’s response to it, while on the contrary it is important for both citizens and the public authorities to have factual information about the situation in order to best respond to the pandemic. A free media is essential to a successful public health response.”— The International Press Institute
The letter took note of the “enormous increase” in the number of journalists being charged for sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, with up to three years to life in prison. “In the most recent case, on October 5 a Kerala-based journalist, Siddique Kappan, who was trying to reach the family of a rape victim in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested and charged with sedition,” it added.
Besides Kappan, the advocacy groups highlighted the sedition cases against senior journalist Vinod Dua, Dhaval Patel, the editor and owner of a Gujarati news portal, Face of Nation, and Kamal Shukla, editor of Bhumkal Samachar. Shukla was charged for sharing a cartoon on Facebook, which referred to the Supreme Court’s decision to reject petitions calling for an independent investigation into the mysterious death of special Central Bureau of Investigation judge Brijgopal Loya in 2014.
The groups said they found this trend of using sedition laws to stifle criticism “extremely disturbing”.
“The use of sedition laws to harass independent, critical journalists is not only a gross violation of the country’s international commitments, it is also an attempt by the government to silence any criticism,” they added. “Journalistic work cannot be equated to sedition or undermining security.”