Guwahati: Is India becoming an unsafe country for journalists? Recent incidents of crackdown, including that on Manipur-based Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who was arrested under National Security Act (NSA) for criticising the BJP, its ideological mentor Rashtriyaswayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and Manipur CM N Biren Singh, seem to suggest so.
Just to put things into perspective, over the past ten years, from 2008 to 2018 (up to Dec 25), 13 journalists were imprisoned in India as per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-profit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide. AS per CPJ, the highest arrests (four) were made in the year 2015.
The space for journalists to practise their profession independently and freely is shrinking with illiberal regimes and their ideological supporters around the world clamping down on journalists with all their might, and India is no exception.
As per the findings of Freedom House, a freedom and democracy watchdog, “Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.” In terms of press freedom rating, India scores 41-60, which is an indicator of a partially free press.
Similarly, a CPJ analysis shows that the number of imprisoned journalists stands at the highest level since the 1990s.
In a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2018 Index, India occupied the 138th position out of 180 countries, from the 136th position in 2017, below disturbed countries like Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestine and Zimbabwe, to name a few.
What does the imprisonment of Kishorechandra Wangkhem reflect?
In a social media post, Kishorechandra Wangkhem had called N Biren Singh a “puppet” of PM Modi. In one of the videos, he is also heard saying “F..k you BJP” and “F..k you RSS”. The controversy was stoked after Wangkham criticised the state government for commemorating the Rani of Jhansi, a queen who fought the British invaders. He raised the point that the queen had nothing to do with the state’s struggle against the colonial rulers.
While the comments passed by Wangkhem were criticism or an insult is debatable, but did he deserve to be booked under the draconian NSA has sparked off a debate around the freedom of speech in India. NSA allows the administration to detain people merely under the presumption that they could do something detrimental to national security. It also denies them access to a lawyer or a hearing before a court of law and detention of up to a year without a trial.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh was quoted by media reports as saying, “In this case I can tolerate criticism but not humiliation of my leaders, and he was abusing as well as humiliating the national heroes like Rani of Jhansi and PM Modi, which is totally beyond of expression.”
He further substantiated his argument by stating, "Justified or not, that will be the work of the court. It is a democratic country, we have the right to criticise, but we should not forget there are also some restrictions.”
But, in a country where freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution, a right essential to the profession of journalism, how does one decide the limitations of this significant right, or, can it be decided at the whim and fancy of anybody holding a powerful position in a given society. But, what about politicians who pass loose comments and use unparliamentary language, not to mention the political party backed abusive trolls?
Is freedom of speech only limited to politicians?
Blame game and mud-slinging is commonplace when it comes to politics, but is there no restriction on the kind of abusive words and irrational statements made by politicians in the context of ‘Freedom of Speech’.
Our very own Prime Minister Narendra Modi had uttered some of the foulest words for UPA chairperson in 2004, when he described her as a ‘Jersey Cow’ and present Congress president Rahul Gandhi as her ‘hybrid’ bachchada (calf).
Referring to the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah had termed the so-called Bangladeshi immigrants as ‘termites’. It was a comment which had invited a lot of criticism.
Assam’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sharma had earlier this year termed Cancer as ‘Divine Justice’.
Anubrata Mandal, Birbhum district secretary of the TMC, once asked his party members and supporters to bomb police jeeps and also burn down the houses of the independent candidates. Within one week of making such a comment, an independent candidate, Sagar Ghosh, was killed, allegedly by TMC activists. But the party denied any involvement.
Reacting to a death penalty awarded to the three accused persons of Mumbai’s Shakti Mills rape case, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the then Samajwadi Party chief, infamously said “Boys err sometimes.”
The list of such weird, insensitive, hurtful and misleading statements by politicians is a never-ending one, and hardly any action has ever been taken against them. So, does it mean that the ruling class is allowed to get away with whatever they feel like saying, no matter how abusive or insensitive that comment might be, under the purview of freedom of speech? Even if we consider, for a nanosecond, that the words used by Wangkhem were uncalled for, is the slapping of NSA against him justified? Or, is the freedom of speech only limited to the so called ruling class of the country.
Tools at the hands of the powerful to silence the media
When one observes the way in which all of the 13 journalists have been arrested, the pattern which emerges is that most of them have been arrested under the colonial-era sedition law, under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and now NSA seems to be the new tool to silence the voice of the fourth pillar of democracy.
To cite a few examples, Sudhir Dhawale, a Mumbai-based activist and journalist, who highlighted human rights violations against Dalits, was arrested on charges of sedition and involvement with a terrorist group under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in Jan 2011. But, after spending 40 months in jail, he was acquitted in May 2014 after the police failed to produce substantial evidence against him. He was again arrested on June 6 this year, along with four other individuals, as a part of a joint operation for their alleged involvement with Maoists and inciting the Bhima Koregaon violence. But, the police is yet to provide any substantial evidence of the same.
Similarly, Laxman Chaudhary, a correspondent for vernacular daily, Sambad, was arrested in 2009 for his alleged involvement with anti-government Maoist groups. His detention was based on a packet of Maoist literature addressed to the journalist and found in the possession of a bus conductor who was arrested the same day, the reports said. He was charged with criminal conspiracy and sedition, which includes inciting hatred against the government through the written word, carries a possible life term.
Interestingly, the most common issues covered by most of these arrested scribes include human rights violations by the state and corruption. Many of journalists have also been accused of being Maoist sympathisers.
This crackdown on journalists has led to an increased practice of self-censorship among them. And, shifting from the common practice of filing defamation cases, politicians and big shot industrialists have started lodging more serious criminal complaints against them, which can lead to an extended jail time and hence more harassment.
Perhaps, the statement made by Ranjita Elangbam, the wife of Wangkhem summarises the present state of affairs, when she says, “He is not a terrorist, he just criticised the government. Aren’t we allowed to criticise the government in a democratic country. It’s like the government is making an example out of him that if you criticise or raise your voice against them, you would be put behind bars.”