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.
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:
- Smartmatic, a voting-tech company that Trump and his allies discredited in the course of their election conspiracy campaign, is suing Fox and three of its hosts—Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, and Jeanine Pirro—for defamation. (The suit also targets Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, lawyers for Trump who were regular guests on Fox.) Smartmatic is demanding $2.7 billion in damages; Fox described the suit as “meritless,” but numerous legal experts believe Smartmatic has a strong case. “The Earth is round,” the company’s complaint begins. “Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election for President and Vice President of the United States. The election was not stolen, rigged, or fixed. These are facts. They are demonstrable and irrefutable.”
- Last week, the Daily Beast reported that Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a star reporter at the Times, made bigoted remarks to students in 2019; the paper disciplined McNeil but did not fire him. Times staffers felt that the paper did not take his conduct seriously enough, and wrote to management to say so. This week, top editors promised to “learn the right lessons from this incident,” and assured, “you will see results.” The Post’s Jeremy Barr has more. In other Times news, editors have reassigned Rukmini Callimachi—whose terrorism podcast, Caliphate, was recently found to contain major errors—to the higher education beat.
- Yesterday, Reply All, a tech podcast, released the first episode of “The Test Kitchen,” a new four-part miniseries focused on racism and the toxic workplace culture at Bon Appétit. Sruthi Pinnamaneni, a reporter for Reply All, spoke with almost every staffer of color who has worked at Bon Appétit during the past decade. “This is the story of how they survived in this system,” Pinnamaneni says, “and how they finally took it apart.”
- Hearst and Vice Media both published diversity and inclusion reports this week. Hearst, which has never before released such a report, revealed that seventy-three percent of its US employees are white, a figure that rises to seventy-eight percent among management. Vice Media, for its part, reported that forty-two percent of its US staff—and more than half of its recent hires—identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
- For Scalawag, Alexis Wray, a former student journalist at North Carolina A&T State, a historically Black university in Greensboro, reflects on a project she led that called out local newsrooms for naming the university in headlines about unrelated local crimes. In 2019, Wray convened a meeting with local editors; she wasn’t optimistic that they would change their practices, but headlines have since improved, she writes.
- Recently, George Hale, a reporter for Indiana Public Media, wrote that he and a colleague tested positive for COVID-19 after covering a rush of executions at the federal penitentiary, in Terre Haute—the site of a major recent COVID outbreak—shortly before Trump left office. Hale informed prison officials of his diagnosis, but they apparently failed to notify the other reporters and witnesses with whom he had come into contact.
- On Wednesday, NPR announced the creation of a Station Investigations Team; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will fund the new unit, and Cheryl W. Thompson, an investigative reporter who joined NPR from the Post in 2019, will lead it. The team will work with local member stations on “ambitious investigative projects,” offering help with data collection, freedom of information requests, and analysis.
- Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, has said that he will stay in his job at least through the end of this year, putting an end to widespread speculation about his impending departure. Zucker told Stephen Battaglio, of the LA Times, that he discussed an earlier exit with his boss, but decided that he loves his job too much to leave now. “The energy of this news cycle has gone on longer than anyone could have imagined,” he said. “I’m still excited about that.”
- And Slate’s Tom Scocca implores journalists and their editors to stop using pointless brackets within quotations. “This is not a question of mere taste or preference,” he writes. “Juliet did not say ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore [is he] Romeo.’ The Beatles did not sing ‘[They] Want[ed] to Hold [Someone’s] Hand.’ Human beings quite easily and naturally follow grammar as it shifts from one point of view to another.” (My editor agrees with him.)