UAPA, financial regulations being misused to target scribes, activists, say international rights groups

The 12 human rights groups charged Indian authorities with carrying out an “escalating crackdown” on media and civil society since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power in 2014

October 13, 2023 07:57 pm | Updated 07:57 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Author Arundhati Roy and journalists during a protest meeting over police action on NewsClick, at Press Club of India in New Delhi on October 04, 2023.

Author Arundhati Roy and journalists during a protest meeting over police action on NewsClick, at Press Club of India in New Delhi on October 04, 2023. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and 10 other international rights groups have jointly condemned what they termed as Indian authorities’ misuse of counter-terrorism laws, financial regulations, and other laws to “silence journalists, human rights defenders, activists, and critics of the government”.

Their statement, released on Friday, comes in the wake of the recent search and seizure operations conducted against at least 46 journalists associated with NewsClick, and the subsequent arrest of the website’s editor and Human Resources head. The statement also refers to the recent sanction granted by the Delhi L-G to prosecute author Arundhati Roy in a 13-year-old case, with the human rights groups speculating that this was a reaction to Ms. Roy’s participation in protests against the NewsClick raids

The statement also highlighted the alleged targeting of activist Teesta Setalvad, the Income Tax department’s raids at the BBC’s India offices, the filing of alleged “politically motivated charges” against student activists in the Delhi riots case, the arrest and detention of Kashmiri journalists Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul and Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez, and the continued detention of Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan activists in the Bhima Koregaon case. 

‘Escalating crackdown’

“The arrest and raids at NewsClick, an outlet known to criticize the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government for failing to uphold human rights, are the latest attempts by authorities to harass and intimidate independent journalists,” said the statement. It was issued by Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line Defenders, International Federation of Journalists, International Service for Human Rights, and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), among others. 

“Since the BJP government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, Indian authorities have carried out an escalating crackdown on the media and civil society,” the statement said, adding that journalists and activists from minority groups are particularly at risk.

The rights groups urged Indian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release all journalists, human rights defenders, activists, and critics arrested in politically motivated cases, drop all charges against them, and stop threatening, harassing and intimidating them, including through criminal prosecution. 

‘Misusing UAPA’

“They have arrested journalists on spurious terrorism and other criminal charges, and have routinely targeted critics and independent news organizations with allegations of financial irregularities. Similarly, they have used the counterterrorism law, national security laws, foreign funding laws, and income tax regulations to target and prosecute human rights defenders and peaceful protesters,” the statement said.  

It quoted an analysis by Amnesty International to say that despite the increased use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), only 2.2% of the cases registered under this law from 2016 to 2019 ended in a court conviction, while 11% of cases were closed for lack of evidence. 

“The delay in filing charges and several acquittals in these cases show that the counterterrorism law is used to keep critics locked up for years, and send a chilling message to others who speak out, making the judicial process itself a tool for persecution and punishment,” the statement said, adding that the UN’s human rights experts have repeatedly condemned the use of UAPA to target journalists, human rights defenders, and other critics.

“The government should also amend the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to bring it in line with international human rights standards and, pending its amendment, the government should stop using it to target critics,” the groups said.

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