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India's Laws Used to Pressure Reporters Covering Pandemic

A vendor wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, displays newspapers at his stall in Amritsar on March 20, 2020.

From Gujarat in the west to Himachal Pradesh in the north, Indian journalists are facing legal action over their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Complaints filed against several journalists seen as being critical of state or regional responses to the pandemic have fueled concerns among media experts that India’s laws are being used to interfere with press freedom.

“The pandemic is opening up new instances of harassment to bring the media under pressure,” said independent media and governance analyst N. Bhaskara Rao. “The message is that there will be consequences for reports that authorities don’t like.”

India, which on March 24 ordered a nationwide lockdown, has the fifth-highest number of reported coronavirus cases and this week it recorded its biggest one-day jump in new cases.

Politicians and others have previously used India’s defamation laws to try to limit free speech in the country’s media, analysts said. But during the pandemic, complaints also have been filed under India’s Epidemics Diseases Act, passed by British rulers before India’s constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, and the 2005 Disaster Management Act. Both provide for possible prison terms and fines.

“During a lockdown, the journalist’s role is even more vital. But if you are going to scare a journalist with prosecution, not only are you affecting the freedom of the press, you are in the long run going against public interest and its right to know,” said New Delhi-based lawyer Sanjoy Ghose, who also writes on legal issues.

The National Union of Journalists in India has called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to safeguard the media, and the Editors Guild of India said the “growing pattern of misuse of criminal laws to intimidate journalists” in parts of the country is “disturbing.”

Authorities have previously defended India’s press freedom record. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar on World Press Freedom Day said the country’s media enjoyed “absolute freedom.”

When VOA contacted India’s embassy in Washington for comment, it was referred to a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. The spokesperson did not respond to an email requesting comment.

In a statement last month, the Editors Guild cited the case of Dhaval Patel, editor and owner of Face of Nation, a news portal based in the western state of Gujarat, where Modi was previously chief minister. Patel was arrested on charges of sedition and spreading false news on the pandemic in May, and released on bail. Under the Disasters Act, he could be jailed for two years.

The charges relate to a report predicting potential changes in the political leadership in Gujarat, where there had been a surge in coronavirus cases. Local authorities denied the story and said that unfounded articles led to an atmosphere of “instability and fear” during the pandemic.

The officer in charge of Faizabad police station, Nitish Kumar Srivastav, and a resident, Harvajan Godh, filed two separate complaints against Siddharth Varadarajan, the New Delhi-based editor of the web portal, The Wire, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is accused of spreading discord, enmity, and rumors during the COVID-19 lockdown.

One complaint related to a report about plans by Uttar Pradesh authorities to go ahead with religious gatherings despite the lockdown, and the state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s attendance at an event, The Wire reported. Plans for the gatherings were later cancelled and state officials said safety and social distancing protocols were followed at the event Adityanath attended.

The other complaint was for tweeting “unverified claims,” a reference that is widely believed to be related to a tweet in which Varadarajan wrongly attributed a quote from a Hindu religious leader to Adityanath. Varadarajan issued a clarification the next day.

“If the government disagrees with something or its version has not been put out, it is welcome to put out its version. If the government wants to contest a claim in a story, it should issue a statement. That is what governments normally do,” Varadarajan told VOA.

“But to criminalize a journalist or summon them for an inquiry is sheer abuse of power. They are taking advantage of the pandemic to target journalists.”

The chief minister’s office did not immediately respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Although cases against senior journalists such as Varadarajan have grabbed attention, there has also been harassment or complaints targeting reporters in smaller Indian towns and districts, said media analyst Rao.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, for instance, authorities briefly arrested freelance reporter Zubair Ahmed in April over a tweet.

Ahmed had asked on Twitter why families who spoke with COVID-19 patients on the phone were placed in home quarantine. Police said the question, based on a report in a local newspaper, could instigate distrust of contact tracing protocols. Ahmed was charged with spreading false information and released on bail.

In Himachal Pradesh state, nearly a dozen police complaints were filed against six reporters, including Ashwani Saini. District authorities said the freelance journalist’s live video report in April on complaints by migrant workers about rations was fake.

Tens of thousands of migrant laborers were left without work or money when India announced the nationwide lockdown on March 25.

“This is an effort to muzzle anyone who highlighted shortfalls during the lockdown,” said Saini. “It was basically a message that we should only report on the version that authorities want to put out.”

The Himachal Pradesh state police did not respond to VOA’s email request for comment.

A senior official in Himachal Pradesh, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak with the media, told VOA, “We support freedom of media but this cannot be a one-sided affair. There have been cases of reporters misrepresenting the situation while we are battling the pandemic, of entering quarantine centers without authorization.” He said he could not comment on specific cases.

It is possible the complaints filed against journalists may not stand scrutiny in court, but India’s long-winded, slow-moving justice system makes the process itself the punishment, said Varadarajan of The Wire.

“Even before the pandemic, India was not doing well on global indices on press freedom. If this trend continues then we will emerge from this pandemic with an even more emasculated and weakened press freedom regime.”