Bharatiya Janata Party Isn't The Only Press Freedom Violator In India

Nine days after Narendra Modi was sworn in for the second time as the Prime Minister of India, the police in the country's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, also governed by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, arrested Anuj Shukla, the editor of privately-owned TV news broadcaster Nation Live, and Ishita Singh, the head of the station. They were accused of attempting to incite violence by defaming the state's Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. The police claimed that the broadcaster "conducted a panel discussion without checking facts on 'defamatory allegations' made by a woman against the CM [chief minister]." Two days later, Anshul Kaushik, another Nation Live journalist was arrested on the same charges. All three were sent to 14-day judicial custody. When the time came to release them on bail, the police accused them of running their news channel without a proper license. Ajay Shah, the channel head, denied this charge over a Facebook video. He claimed that even BJP has advertised with the station during elections. He is currently on run, fearing arrest while his colleagues are still in jail.

These arrests are just one of the many incidents of press freedom violation recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists in India since the new government took office on May 30. In fact, attacks on journalists who are just practicing their craft have become alarmingly widespread to the point that this key pillar of India's democracy is in serious jeopardy.

Prime Minister Modi is accused by critics of contempt towards journalists. He has accused them of being biased, much like the US President Donald Trump, especially during his 13-year tenure as the Gujarat Chief Minister.

He has given one-on-one interviews to a few journalists who allegedly pandered to his agenda. A few days before the conclusion of the general election, he appeared at a press conference. Where he refused to answer questions, deferring to party president Amit Shah who took on the queries from journalists.

Meanwhile, since the general elections were announced in March, there has been a surge in attacks on the press, not just in BJP strongholds but also in states controlled by opposition parties.

In Chhattisgarh, where the Indian National Congress (INC) came to power promising a journalist safety bill after 15 years of BJP rule under which nearly 10 journalists were either arrested or killed, Dilip Sharma, an editor of a local news portal, was arrested in the middle of the night last month, for "a false report" on a power outage in the state. "I have been a journalist for 20 years and never faced such humiliation," Sharma told me.

In the state of West Bengal, where stones and bricks were thrown at vehicles of journalists during the election, allegedly by workers of the ruling Trinamool Congress, the Chief Election Officer of the state admitted that at least five journalists were injured in a single day. I spoke for CPJ to one of the victims, Joyprakash Das of The Indian Express, who told me: "It was like a shower of stones. All the windows of our car broke as my photographer and I crouched inside the car to save ourselves." Broken glass cut his face and Ghosh was hit on the head by a stone.

In Karnataka, where the Congress party has a coalition government with the JDS, the police registered a defamation case along with charges of forgery, cheating, criminal breach of trust, and intimidation against Vishweshwar Bhat, an editor of a newspaper, for publishing a report alleging a conflict within Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy's family. Kumaraswamy has also threatened to come up with a law to control media because journalists were "portraying us in a bad light".

In his first speech after winning the election, newly elected Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Jaganmohan Reddy, who leads the YSR Congress, openly threatened three news channels - Eenadu, Andhra Jyothy and TV5 with defamation cases for critical reporting. During the campaign, his party had even blacklisted TV5 from covering their events.

Not to be left behind, two days before its first month anniversary, reports tickled in that the central government led by Narendra Modi has stopped advertising with three major news outlets - The Times Group, ABP Group, and The Hindu. The Telegraph newspaper, owned by the ABP Group, and The Hindu had been critical with their coverage of the last government headed by Modi, especially during the elections.

As the largest democracy in the world, India has always prided itself for following two democratic traditions - regular elections and press freedom. In 2019, we witnessed the largest democratic exercise ever with over 900 million registered voters. The day Prime Minister Modi won his historic mandate, he paid homage to the democratic values of India and said "the entire world has to register and recognise India's democratic prowess". I'm not sure what exactly he meant by it when Indian journalists growingly find it difficult to practice their craft.

(Kunal Majumder is the India Correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

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