In India, the spread of the novel coronavirus has been followed by a spate of threats against press freedom. On March 24, the day Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced a strict nationwide lockdown, he gathered about twenty of the country’s top news executives for a meeting. Via videoconference, Modi implored the editors and owners to publish “inspiring and positive stories” about the government’s response to the virus. A week later, after the lockdown stranded hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, the Supreme Court of India issued an order that directed the media to “refer to and publish the official version about the developments,” though it did not prohibit independent reporting. In mid-April, one of the founding editors of The Wire, a popular independent news website, was served a court summons for making an “objectionable comment” about a state chief minister. And after a journalist in Mumbai allegedly reported a misleading story that led to a surge of traffic at Mumbai’s Bandra train station, a local court released an order stating that, although the press enjoys freedom of speech and expression, “the said freedom cannot be said to be unfettered.”
But India’s press was in fetters well before the global pandemic. These latest developments are just the most recent instances of a troubling and persistent trend of antagonism toward the media. Not long ago in Delhi, this trajectory came to a brutal apex. On Monday, February 25, when reports of unrest in a northeastern neighborhood reached her newsroom, Tanushree Pandey, a broadcast journalist with India Today, went out to the field to investigate. When she arrived on the scene, she was met by mobs wielding bricks and stones, carrying batons, and setting fire to buildings. When her cameraman began to film, the two of them were approached by a group of men shouting “Jai shri ram,” a Hindu-nationalist slogan. The men threatened to kill them both if they didn’t stop filming, Pandey recalls, and grabbed her around her waist and shoulders and shoved the cameraman with wooden sticks. They then asked her to present identification to prove that she was Hindu. Pandey, who had reported from riots and conflict zones across the country, was shocked. “This is something we have never witnessed before,” she said. By the time the worst of the violence had abated, three days later, more than a dozen members of the press had been harassed or assaulted.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Thirteen seconds. Dozens of bullets. One explosive photo.
Since December, when the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was introduced, protests had erupted across the country; the CAA was widely interpreted as anti-Muslim, and many feared that it would lead to further measures with the goal of rendering India’s Muslim minority stateless. The riot Pandey witnessed was the result of right-wing anger coming to a head—a local politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party had incited a crowd in northeast Delhi to clear out a group of anti-CAA demonstrators in his district.
By early Monday morning, armed gangs of Hindu men had begun to attack the anti-CAA protesters. People were shot and killed on both sides of the religious divide, but soon the balance had decisively shifted in favor of the Hindu majority. The police did little to restrain the mobs, and in some cases even collaborated with them. By March 8, the Delhi Police reported that fifty-three people, the majority of whom were Muslim, had been killed. And as violence raged and journalists rushed to cover the conflict, the mobs turned their sights on the press.
Arvind Gunesekar, a reporter with the news channel NDTV, was reporting at the scene with his colleague Suarabh Shukla. They were cautious—when they saw a mob of more than two hundred people burning down a mosque, they decided to film on their phones, rather than with full-size cameras. But a few people from the mob saw Gunesekar filming, approached him, and began to beat him. As a blow from a stick was about to come down on Gunesekar’s head, Shukla thrust himself into the bludgeon’s path. The men began to beat him, too. They asked for his identification but, when they saw that he was a Hindu, stopped, forced the two of them to delete the videos from their phones, and let them go. Gunesekar lost three teeth in the attack, and his jaw was shattered.
Many other journalists have stories of near misses and narrow escapes from the mobs in Delhi. Aunindyo Chattopadhyay, a photojournalist with the Times of India, was approached by a mob that tried to force him to remove his pants to check whether he was circumcised. Ismat Ara, a freelance journalist, decided to take on a Hindu name—Isha—to hide her Muslim identity, and fabricated a story about living in the neighborhood. But a group of men doggedly followed her, asking her questions and making threatening comments about Muslims and the media. After a series of bluffs, she was able to evade them. She still has flashbacks to that day—to the crowds she saw wielding bricks, to the burning buildings, and to a man who told her, “Why are you afraid? It is only Muslims who should be afraid.” She can’t bring herself to return to the area.
Ayush Tiwari, a journalist with the website newslaundry.com, was reporting with a small group when he encountered a mob of around thirty men. A police officer standing nearby told them to leave. “They said, ‘You are a journalist, we can’t guarantee your safety, just walk away,’ ” Tiwari said. Two of his colleagues approached the group, and when the mob realized that they were media workers, they began to chase them. “They were shouting—‘These are Muslims in the guise of the media, grab them, grab them,’ ” Tiwari said. On March 1, he went back to the area and found a body floating in a gutter; he later learned that this man had been killed on the 25th, likely by the same mob that had chased him that night. “A sort of shiver went down my spine,” Tiwari said.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME violence against a minority group has brought terror to Delhi. In 1984, Rahul Bedi was working as a reporter for the Indian Express when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards. They were both Sikhs, and had acted in retaliation for a military operation Gandhi had ordered against a group of Sikh separatists. As the news swept the country, state-backed violence against the Sikh community followed; official government estimates claim that 6,150 Sikhs were killed, with other sources putting the death toll anywhere from 8,000 to 17,000.
Bedi is a Sikh; he has a beard but does not wear a turban. Some journalists at the time shaved their beards before going out to report, for fear of being recognized as or mistaken for Sikhs. But Bedi didn’t. He didn’t wear a bulletproof vest, either, or a helmet. He remembers the threats he encountered as attempts to scare rather than harm. He never felt truly endangered.
Eighteen years later, in 2002, Bedi was in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, during the peak of the anti-Muslim violence that ravaged the state while Modi was its chief minister. At least 790 Muslims were killed during the massacres, along with close to 250 Hindus. Things had changed by then; the rise of television news and the early internet had thrust the events into the public eye, which led to more convictions in the aftermath of the events but also a greater sense of antagonism toward the media. Still, Bedi never felt his life was threatened. “Over the years, there was a sort of unspoken, grudging acceptance that journalists were all neutral to this whole game, and they had a certain immunity. If you had a cameraman with you, or if you had ‘press’ written on your car, they would always realize that you were a member of the press. The law and order and the crowd didn’t screw with you,” Bedi said.
Since then, the independence of the press has deteriorated. In 2002, India ranked 80th out of 139 countries on the Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index list. It now sits at the low rank of 142 out of 180. Modi’s BJP-led government has garnered international attention for its tightening grip on the country’s media—government officials have pressured advertisers to withdraw funding from newspapers and television channels that are deemed subversive, many journalists have been forced to resign, and others have been arrested on spurious charges. A news channel in Kerala was shut down for forty-eight hours for covering the violence in Delhi in a way that seemed “critical toward Delhi Police and RSS,” the right-wing organization closely affiliated with the BJP.
These more assertive measures have been accompanied by a widespread vilification of the news media. Journalists who are perceived as critical of the government are frequently accused of being part of “Lutyen’s Delhi” or the “Khan Market gang,” derisive terms for New Delhi’s liberal and left-leaning elite. The portmanteau “presstitute” is deployed frequently, as is the accusation of being an “anti-national.” And it is not only those on the right who are distrustful—the country’s minorities have little reason to believe that coverage by most mainstream news outlets will do anything other than further demonize them. Through the saturation of divisive messaging on social media, often spread by the BJP, the public is hyper-attuned to the perceived allegiances of any given news organization.
Since anti-CAA protests started in December, attacks on journalists have become more common. Many have been perpetrated by police officers: on December 15, when the Delhi Police raided Jamia Millia Islamia university, a group of officers assaulted Bushra Sheikh, a BBC reporter, pulling her hair, breaking her phone, and hitting her with a baton; Shaheen Abdulla, a journalist with the news website Maktoob Media, was also beaten that day, as was Shariq Adeel Yousuf, a news reporter with YouTube channel Pal Pal News.
But the violence that journalists faced a few months later in Delhi marked a turning point. “What took place in Delhi in February was completely unprecedented,” says Bedi. Every journalist I spoke to voiced the same sentiment, even those who had reported from previous riots or conflict zones. The public that they confronted in northeast Delhi had been emboldened to act violently, and with impunity, against the press.
The effect has been traumatic. Some journalists have quit: Sreya Chatterjee, a twenty-six-year-old broadcast journalist with India Ahead, left her job and moved home to Kolkata. But most remain.
Many of the journalists who covered the violence are now covering the pandemic and the government’s response. Akash Napa, who was shot in February in northeast Delhi, has started going back out into the field to report on the coronavirus, despite the persistent cough that he has been nursing since the gunshot damaged his lungs. Like many journalists, Tiwari, from newslaundry.com, is trying not to dwell on what happened. He has been reporting from his apartment since late March, fact-checking stories and making phone calls. He and other journalists are at work writing the deluge of coronavirus news that threatens to bury the story of their own declining safety. “Coronavirus is not something that has been manufactured to take attention away from the riots,” Tiwari said. “It’s just very unfortunate timing.”