The harassment against certain journalists in the country has escalated, and journalists from the Muslim community or those supporting the minorities are being targeted, N. Ram, Director of The Hindu Publishing Group, said here on Monday. He also contended that the higher judiciary was inconsistent on free speech and media freedom.
During a panel discussion on ‘Legal Challenges Faced by Journalists in India’ in Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) at Taramani, moderated by Kunal Majumder, India’s representative in the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mr. Ram pointed out that journalists, who were earlier targeted with civil defamation charges, were now being tried with criminal defamation and then with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
The 1967 Act, which goes back a long way, was earlier either rarely or never used but today various agencies played the “tricks”, backed by the Central and various State governments, Mr. Ram said and pointed out the case of journalist Siddique Kappan, who remained in jail even though the Supreme Court had put the sedition law on hold. Tamil Nadu was in a much better space than many other States in India, Mr. Ram said.
‘Decline of institutions’
Elaborating on the “decline of institutions” in India, Mr. Ram referred to attempts by the police, the Income Tax Department, the Enforcement Directorate and other agencies and explained how one of the agencies was trying to insinuate one of the co-founders of Alt News in a charge.
“They are escalating the attack on particular journalists,” he said.
“The harassment has escalated, and charges are more serious. Particular journalists, very often belonging to the Muslim community or those who support minorities very strongly, like Teesta Setalvad, are being targeted. We have to say it out loud,” Mr. Ram said and maintained that he would regard Ms. Setalvad as a journalist and an activist. “It is hard to separate journalism from some kind of activism,” he added.
Communalism as a “political mobilisation strategy” was being used, he said, and added that it had major consequences and the media, particularly those sections, which were independent or fiercely independent and do investigations, were being targeted.
Though there was a time when India was in an enviable position among developing countries when it came to freedom of the press, if he were to make the claim now, he would be accused of fake news on behalf of the establishment, Mr. Ram said.
Contending that laws which once gave protection to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in Article 19 (1) of the Constitution as originally framed by the Constituent Assembly were “flawed” and “inadequate” for various reasons, Mr. Ram pointed to new critical scholarships on how good this protection was.
“Accepting the present laws as they are, they are also being misused, exploited. They work around many of the safeguards that the Supreme Court has laid down. I must say with great disappointment, but overall, the higher judiciary has been ambivalent, inconsistent and, on the whole, disappointing when it comes to protecting free speech and media freedom,” Mr. Ram contended. As for the subordinate judiciary, it was often a let-down, he said.
Contrary to the claims about the lack of independence in Indian journalism, Mr. Ram maintained there were spaces where journalism was independent, inquisitive and questioning, and investigative journalism was “well and alive.”
Sashi Kumar, the chairman of Media Development Foundation, spoke about the draconian laws that are brought to bear on journalism and further pointed to the growing tendency to cite Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which speaks about reasonable restrictions on free speech, in cases foisted against journalists. “This in effect makes a rider or qualification. of a fundamental right dominate the fundamental right itself. It’s like putting the cart before the horse.”
Pegasus case judgment
The interim judgment in the Pegasus case clearly said the government can’t indiscriminately use national security as an excuse to act against freedom of speech, Mr. Sashi Kumar said. “The order, significantly, goes on to talk about the importance of protection of journalistic sources. This in a context where journalism is segueing into whistle blowing. Whistle blowing as meta journalism.”
After all the biggest news stories which took journalism itself by storm came from Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, who are the archetypal whistle blowers of our times. But they don’t, won’t get any protection. If Assange or Snowdon are repatriated to the US - the mother of free media in our eyes - they will almost certainly be put away for life in prison for what is considered crime equivalent to sedition, he said.
The fresh entrants to the profession of journalism has to negotiate all these aspects and forces that inform and are constitutive of news - social media with all its pitfalls, a good section of the media which has become a propaganda arm of the government, the growing credibility crisis of the media because they do not hold firm to the core values and cardinal principles of journalism and their consequent disconnect with the people. Journalism becomes at one level part of the problem, Mr. Sashi Kumar said.
As for the ‘Trust Law - CPJ Handbook on Legal Rights and Remedies for Indian Journalists’ for which the CPJ has collaborated with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Mr. Ram said it could discuss the “reasonable restrictions” clause in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. “The moment you say it is reasonable restriction, the reasonableness becomes justiciable,” he contended.
Earlier in the day, CPJ’s chief strategist for journalist safety Colin Pereira conducted a workshop on ‘How to Create a Culture of Safety in Newsrooms’.