A month after taking office in the summer of 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India’s “democracy will not sustain if we can’t guarantee freedom of speech and expression”.
Six years on, many believe, India’s democracy looks diminished, by what they say are persistent attacks on the freedom of the press. Last year India dropped two places and was ranked 142 on the 180-country World Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders. It’s an unflattering commentary on a country that often prides itself on vibrant and competitive media.
The latest crackdown has happened after violence during a recent rally by farmers to protest at a raft of agriculture reform laws. One protester was killed and more than 500 policemen injured in the clashes. Now, police have filed criminal charges – including sedition and making statements inimical to national integration – against eight journalists who covered the protests in Delhi.
The cause of the protester’s death – at the rally on 26 January – remains disputed. While police say he died when the tractor he was driving overturned, his family alleges that he was shot. His family’s account, which has been published by various newspapers and magazines, appears to have become the basis of these charges. Some of the journalists were involved in reporting or publishing the story, and others only shared it on social media.
Six of them – and a prominent opposition Congress party MP who is accused of “misreporting” facts surrounding the death – are facing cases in four BJP-ruled states. “Is it a crime for media to report statements of relatives of a dead person if they question a post-mortem or police version of the cause of death?” Siddharth Varadarajan, editor-in-chief of The Wire and one of the journalists charged by police, said.