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India: Journalism equals Crime?

Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photojournalist in Kashmir, has been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, an anti-terror law that carries a jail term of up to seven years. One day after the arrest, a report by Reporters Without Borders exhibited that India has dropped two places on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

“Dena pade kuch hi harjana sach hi likhte jaana,
Mat ghabrana mat dar jaana sach hi likhte jaana.”

– Habib Jalib

Previously at 180, India is now ranked 142 out of a total 180 countries, perhaps as a result of similar arrests as Zahra’s. Another reporter from The Hindu, Peerzada Ashiq, was called for questioning twice after an FIR was filed against a story published in the newspaper. As Freedom of Speech and Expression seems to be a threat to the walls of the PMO, it also means suffocating those who try to break free. Peerzada Ashiq, Umar Khalid, Masrat Zahra, Gowhar Geelani, Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar have been booked under Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Three out of the six are journalists, and the other three are student activists. Furthermore, it is important to highlight that Safoora Zargar, student of Jamia Millia Islamia, is also 3 months pregnant.

Masrat Zahra, a prominent and famous photojournalist from Kashmir, uses her social media profile to produce art out of atrocities acted upon the people of her land. She depicts stories out of words, painted with a melancholic hue of red and tainted with bullet holes. Her Twitter feed includes many posts on Kashmir, the militancy, updates on COVID-19 in the state, and the occasional scenic photograph of Kashmir. Therefore, she has been charged with posting ‘anti-national‘ content. Zahra has over the years contributed to several national and international news agencies such as The Washington Post, The Sun, Al Jazeera and The Caravan.

credits: Masrat Zahra

Gauri Lankesh was an Indian journalist-turned-activist from Bangalore, Karnataka. She worked as an Editor in Lankesh Patrike and ran her weekly called Gauri Lankesh Patrike. At a time of intense vitriol against the press in India, she was a fearless, sometimes reckless critic of the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Her paper was a tabloid in every sense, gleefully sensational and indifferent to decorum. But the vehemence and humour of her polemics in defence of pluralism and minority rights had made her a beloved figure to an increasingly embattled opposition. Three years after being shot in September 2017, justice has still not been served. Meanwhile, under the amended UAPA Law, an individual can be designated a terrorist and sentenced to jail for up to 7 years.

It is important to recognize the harmful effects of curbing the press. Press and media are known as the fourth pillar of democracy and the fierce measures to suppress media are starting to mould the pillar. Only the news that aligns with the popular and political opinion seems to be allowed. Other journalists and celebrities like Ravish Kumar, Swara Bhaskar and Rana Ayyub are being threatened with the same measures.

Consequently, this could mean a complete loss of freedom of reporting for all news houses. Selective reporting has already given an ugly shade of Islamophobia to the global pandemic. This would increase if draconian laws and punishments like so are not checked. The ranking by Reporters Without Borders cited ‘police brutality and hate campaigns on social media by Hindutva followers against journalists’ to explain India’s position. RSF’s latest report attributes India’s rank to the Narendra Modi government “tightening” its grip on the media, and pressuring it to “toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”. The report also suggests that India’s rank is heavily affected by the situation in Kashmir, where it has become “virtually impossible” for journalists to be free.

credits: Arré India

There has been an alarming rise of those who espouse Hindutva and their efforts to “purge” anti-national elements from national debates, along with hate campaigns that call for the “journalists concerned to be murdered”. There are up to 90 news broadcasts that run 24 hours, but many journalists concede it is getting harder to report freely. Once impartial news houses and journalists have picked a “side” from the popular opinion to unbiased news. Fears of arrest have resulted in self-censorship, or independent journalists leaving news house jobs. While a few cases have hit headlines, many happen quietly. BJP’s victory means the case for strengthening media protections and autonomy becoming increasingly urgent.

“Pal do pal ke aish ki khaatir kya dena kya jhukna,
Aakhir sab ko hai mar jaana sach hi likhte jaana.”

– Habib Jalib

Eishita is a first year student pursuing Literature at Maitreyi College, DU

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Written by Eishita

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