India commemorates National Press Day today, November 16, to honour the Press Council of India, a statutory body that keeps an eye on the quality of reportage provided by the Indian Press community. The body acts as a "moral" watchdog to ensure that journalistic objectivity is not compromised or affected by external factors in the country.
To laud the role of media especially during the pandemic, several political leaders took to Twitter to wish journalists on National Press Day.
'Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy,' Walter Cronkite, American journalist once said.
While the nation acknowledges the brave and courageous fourth pillar of democracy, many journalists and their future continue to be at the mercy of the judiciary and the government that does not approve of their critical coverage of stories.
Press freedom in India has worsened since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, with authorities targeting reporters, journalists and media organisations for questioning the government. India ranks 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, dropping two places from last year.
A Rights and Risks Analysis Group report released on June 15, 2020, revealed that as many as 55 journalists were targeted for covering the Coronvirus pandemic in India between March and May 31. The report said that journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats for doing their job.
While the government claims that it is committed to maintaining press freedom in India and strongly oppose those who throttle it, the reality seems otherwise.
Several journalists including Siddique Kappan, Prashant Kanojia, Aasif Sultan, Patricia Mukhim and many more were put behind bars and charged under anti-terror laws for performing their duty.
The Uttar Pradesh Police in August arrested journalist Prashant Kanojia from his residence in south Delhi for allegedly posting a morphed photograph related to Ram temple in Ayodhya. In an FIR registered by the Hazratganj police station in Lucknow on August 17, the police had alleged that Kanojia's tweet threatened law and order. He was granted bail by the Allahabad high court two months after his arrest.
In another incident that surfaced in October, a journalist of The Caravan, Ahan Penkar, was thrashed by the Delhi Police inside the Model Town police station in North Delhi. Penkar was covering a protest against the alleged rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in the area when he was attacked and assaulted on October 16 even after he showed his press ID to the cops and told them that he was a journalist.
In the same month, another journalist from Kerala, Siddique Kappan, along with three others, who were arrested by the UP police while they were on their way to Hathras earlier this week, was charged under the stringent anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and sedition by the cops. The UP police said that they had received information that some "suspicious people" were on their way to Hathras from Delhi. Following the tip-off, the four men - Siddique Kappan, Atiq-ur Rehman, Masood Ahmed and Alam - were stopped at a toll gate near Mathura and arrested.
In another attack on freedom of the press, Jammu and Kashmir Estates Department on October 19 sealed the office of Kashmir Times in a government building at Press Enclave. The owners of one of the oldest English dailies in Jammu and Kashmir also claimed that "no prior notice was given to them".
Late in October, the International Press Institute and Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists had 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.
The groups also 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 Editors Guild of India on November 9 sent a letter to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath raising concerns over media freedom and the safety of journalists in the state.
"We are writing to urge you to address vital issues with respect to protecting press freedom and the rights and safety of working journalists, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In the recent past, several incidents have come to fore, which raise deep concerns on the space for free, fearless and independent journalism in Uttar Pradesh," the letter read.
Countless journalists have been harassed, thrashed without a single word from any union minister or the centre. However, what caught the government's attention was the arrest of the sole nationalist of the Indian media, Republic TV Editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami.
Maharashtra Police on November 4, arrested Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami from his Mumbai residence in connection with the death of interior designer Anvay Naik and his mother Kumud Naik in 2018. Soon after Goswami was detained, several BJP leaders took to Twitter to condemn his detention and called it an 'attack on press freedom in Maharashtra' and said that it is a reminder of the Emergency and dark days.
While the Supreme Court says that it will protect the personal liberty of the citizens, many journalists are assaulted, arrested, not permitted to meet their lawyers, families and charged under stringent laws without any evidence. Constant attempts to silence free speech have jeopardized robust and critical journalism in the country.