Curbs on Indian media continue: U.S. rights report

Notes several instances of govt pressure on media outlets

Updated - March 31, 2021 12:15 am IST

Published - March 31, 2021 12:08 am IST - Washington DC

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the "2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" at the State Department in Washington, DC, U.S., March 30, 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the "2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" at the State Department in Washington, DC, U.S., March 30, 2021.

In its 2020 Human Rights Report, the U.S. State Department said the harassment and detention of journalists critical of the (Indian) government in their reporting and on social media, has continued, although the government generally respected the freedom of expression. It also said government’s requests for user data from Internet companies had increased “dramatically.”

The report, which is submitted each year to the U.S. Congress , is retrospective and contains a country-wise discussion of the state of human rights.

“The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government, or actors considered close to the government, allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling,” the report says.

It also details cases against individual journalists and NGO activists, including Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire (case by U.P. government) and Anirban Chattopadhyay of Anandabazar Patrika (summoning by Kolkata police).

The document also cites reports by journalists and NGOs that local and national level government officials were, “involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services.”

The government made 49,382 user data requests in 2019 from Facebook, a 32% increase from 2018. Over the same period, Google requests increased by 69%, while Twitter requests saw a 68% increase.

In a section on the arbitrary deprivation of life, the report highlights the case of the Sattankulam (Tamil Nadu) custodial deaths of P. Jayaraj and his son J. Benicks, who were arrested for allegedly keeping their shop’s shutters open past permitted hours during the pandemic.

Arrest procedures and treatment of detainees

The report takes note of the April 2020 detention of pregnant Jamia Millia student Safoora Zargar, who was protesting the government’s citizenship laws (it notes she was released in June 2020). It also mentions the arrest of JNU student Umar Khalid, who like Ms. Zargar, was detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The Hindu had reported earlier in March that the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC’s) Working Group against Arbitrary Detentions (WGAD) had also adopted an opinion that concluded that Ms. Zargar’s liberty was deprived in a way that ran counter to “ universally recognised human rights.”

On the protracted detention of politicians in Jammu and Kashmir, the report notes that former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, arrested under the Public Safety Act, was released after a three-month extension of her detention. It also notes that “most political activists” were released, adding some were reportedly detained before district development council elections. The report notes that detentions were arbitrary and access to counsel and medical attention were routinely denied.

“Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir allowed detainees access to a lawyer during interrogation, but human rights groups documented that police routinely employed arbitrary detention and denied detainees further access to lawyers and medical attention,” it said.

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