India cracks down on journalism, again

Last Tuesday, as India celebrated a national holiday commemorating its democratic constitution, thousands of farmers marched and drove their tractors through New Delhi. It was the latest in a series of protests against agricultural reforms that many farmers fear will allow large corporations to crush them. Police tear-gassed the demonstrators and charged at the crowd with batons; as Vidya Krishnan wrote in The Atlantic, “the dueling images—a celebration of India’s democracy on the one hand, the crushing of dissent on the other—were carried on a split screen by many news channels, inadvertently offering the perfect visual metaphor for modern India.” A twenty-five-year-old farmer named Navreet Singh was killed during the protest; officials claimed that he died in a tractor accident, but witnesses said that police shot Singh in the head—an account supported by photographic evidence. Singh’s family has alleged a cover-up. “One doctor told me that my grandson was hit by a gunshot,” Hardip Singh Dibdiba, Singh’s grandfather, told The Guardian, “but said they could not write that a bullet killed him.”

Indian authorities have since filed sedition and other charges against at least nine journalists who reported on, or merely tweeted about, Singh’s death and the protests; some members of the press have been subjected to extrajudicial harassment and threats. Under Indian law, sedition carries a possible penalty of life imprisonment. The editors of two prominent independent news outlets—Vinod K. Jose, of the magazine The Caravan, and Siddharth Varadarajan, of the news website The Wire—were among those charged. On Saturday, police detained two more reporters—Mandeep Punia, a Caravan contributor, and Dharmender Singh, of Online News India—as they covered ongoing farmers’ protests in New Delhi. Kanwardeep Singh, a reporter with the Times of India, told The Guardian that his phone is under surveillance. The government, he believes, is trying to send him a message: “Either I stop writing and stay safe or be ready to live my remaining life behind the bars.”

Related: The killing of Gauri Lankesh

It’s not just news organizations: in recent days, authorities have cracked down on social media, too. On Monday, India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to take down accounts and tweets that criticized Narendra Modi, the prime minister, or that used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide. The Caravan’s account was blocked, as were accounts belonging to Shashi Shekhar Vempanti, the CEO of a state broadcaster, and to a range of activists, commentators, and celebrities. A few hours later, Twitter—which has said that it is compelled to respond to any “properly scoped request from an authorized entity” in countries where it operates—restored the accounts, telling Modi’s government that they contained legitimate speech. The next day, officials restated their demands, and threatened Twitter employees in India with fines and lengthy jail terms should they refuse to comply. As the days went by, Modi also imposed repeated blocks on internet access in Delhi and swathes of Haryana state. Soon, Rihanna noticed, and managed to draw wide attention to the blackouts by tweeting a link to a CNN story with the question: “Why aren’t we talking about this?” Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, also tweeted it, as well as a link to a “toolkit” offering resources for Indian protesters. New Delhi police are now investigating the origins of the toolkit. Yesterday, Modi supporters went into the streets and set fire to images of Rihanna, Thunberg, and other international critics, including Meena Harris, Kamala’s niece.

Blocking the internet is not a new tactic in India, where Modi, a Hindu nationalist, has transformed the country from a secular democracy to a nation bent on repressing minorities, especially Muslims. Journalists, too, have been tyrannized. “Modi and his allies have squeezed, bullied, and smothered the press into endorsing what they call the ‘New India,’” as Dexter Filkins wrote for The New Yorker; Ashis Nandy, a psychologist who interviewed Modi in the nineties, told Filkins that he is “a fascist in every sense. I don’t mean this as a term of abuse. It’s a diagnostic category.” The Filkins piece was published at the end of 2019; that year, Indian officials shut off web access more than a hundred times, including a blanket five-month blockage in Kashmir that was the longest ever imposed in a democracy. The Kashmir blackout obstructed independent journalism at a crucial moment, as Rozina Ali wrote for CJR: it is a Muslim-majority territory, and Modi’s government had just revoked its automomy. The same year, the government revoked the dual citizenship of Aatish Taseer, a British-Indian journalist who wrote a critical profile of Modi for Time. Last year, as Lewis Page reported for CJR, government-aligned mobs terrorized journalists during yet another burst of anti-Muslim violence, and India’s Supreme Court ordered news organizations to publish official messaging about the pandemic. In October, police beat and detained Ahan Penkar, a correspondent for The Caravan, while he was covering a protest about sexual violence. All the while, Modi’s government found other ways to hinder independent reporting, including by withholding government advertising money for TV stations.

As the repression of India’s free press has intensified, female reporters, in particular, have faced increasingly dire threats. In 2017, assassins in Karnataka state gunned down Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who had investigated Hindu nationalism and violence against women. In 2018, Annie Gowen wrote for CJR about Modi’s “contempt” for the press, and described her own experience as a target of social media attacks, “which escalated when I immersed myself in a project chronicling the rise of Hindu extremism under Modi.” Last week, someone attempted to break into the home of Neha Dixit, a reporter who has covered Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party; in recent months, she’s received intimidating phone calls and death threats linked to her work, as often as five or six times a day. Rana Ayyub, a journalist who was central to Filkins’s story in The New Yorker, has received relentless abuse, though she tweeted yesterday that she has never experienced anything like her treatment online in the past few days. “If this is not intimidation,” she wrote, “I don’t know what is.” Even from a horrible baseline, as India’s latest press crackdown shows, things can always get worse.

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Below, more on press freedom in India and around the world:

  • More from CJR: As Modi’s war on journalism has intensified, we’ve chronicled its key moments. In 2018, Siddhartha Deb investigated the murder of Lankesh. In 2019, Ali critiqued international media coverage of Kashmir, which often drowns out local voices in favor of a binary framing focused on the dispute between India and Pakistan. In 2020, Maria Bustillos spoke with Fahad Shah, the editor and publisher of the Kashmir Walla, about the challenges of doing journalism amid an internet blackout. And after Modi’s reelection, Priyanjana Bengani, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, analyzed more than a million messages sent on WhatsApp—a key vector of political discourse and disinformation in India—during the election period.
  • Myanmar: The military regime that seized power in Myanmar on Monday ordered internet providers in the country to block access to Facebook after people in the country posted messages opposing the coup. “Facebook is Myanmar’s dominant channel for online communications, used by about half of the country’s more than 50 million people,” the Wall Street Journal’s Newley Purnell writes. “As internet access in the developing Southeast Asian nation has boomed, many have embraced the platform. But it has also been linked to violence.”
  • South Africa: According to Reporters Without Borders, Twitter recently blocked the account of The Continent, a newsweekly in South Africa, after it posted a (seemingly innocuous) roundup of COVID-vaccine news. After Simon Allison, The Continent’s editor, tweeted criticism of Twitter’s decision, his personal account was also blocked. The same fate befell three other journalists who also tweeted critically about the original block. (Twitter blamed a “machine learning and automation” error and restored the accounts.)
  • Lebanon: Yesterday, Lokman Slim, a Lebanese newspaper columnist and TV commentator, was found dead in his car; police said that he had been shot. Slim played a prominent role in anti-government demonstrations in 2019, and was a strident critic of Hezbollah, the militant group. After Slim’s death was confirmed, Jawad Nasrallah, the son of the Hezbollah’s leader, tweeted, “The loss of some people is in fact an unplanned gain #notsorry.” (He later said he wasn’t referring to Slim.)
  • Mexico: This week, federal authorities in Mexico arrested Mario Marín, the former governor of Puebla state, in connection with the abuse of Lydia Cacho, a journalist who was tortured while in police detention in Puebla in 2005. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more details.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Why ending anonymity would not make social media better

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.