The sentencing of a television journalist this week for allegedly criticizing India’s Hindu nationalist government has amplified concerns over the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and how safely reporters can operate in the world’s most populous democracy.
Television journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was charged with uploading a video on social media last month calling Biren Singha, the chief minister of Manipur state, a “puppet” of the central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The reporter was arrested on Nov. 27 under the National Security Act and sentenced on Wednesday to a year in prison.
“We are in a poor kind of situation with the press freedom under complete control by the government of the day. I can’t say freedom of press has been lost, the right to freedom of expression is there in our constitution, but it is under severe threat,” Pamela Philipose, a social scientist and fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research, told BenarNews.
“I think that the attacks on journalists are symptomatic of a larger picture. There is freedom of press but we are going through bleak times because the government is unsure how to handle dissent. The problem has been there since the inception of this government,” Philipose added.
The journalist’s jailing occurred days after international free press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called India a dangerous place for the media, in a report rounding up the numbers of journalists killed, held hostage or who had gone missing from Jan. 1 till Dec. 1, 2018.
“Journalists also live in fear in India. Six were murdered this year and many others were the targets of murder attempts, physical attacks, and threats,” Paris-based RSF reported. “Hate campaigns against journalists, including incitement to murder, are common on social networks and are fed by troll armies linked to the Hindu nationalist right.”
And on Thursday, the home ministry of the central government, which is controlled by a coalition led by the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), authorized 10 select security and intelligence agencies to monitor any computer.
In response, the opposition Congress party condemned the government and accused it of trying to create a surveillance state.
The opposition was playing with national security and “making a mountain where even a molehill doesn’t exist,” the Press Trust of India news agency quoted Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as saying.
Meanwhile in northeastern Manipur, journalism groups spoke out against Wangkhem’s arrest.
“We strongly condemn the high handedness of the administration to arrest him under National Security Act,” S. Nanda, secretary of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, told BenarNews in a phone interview.
Nanda said the group had reached a compromise with the government after Wangkhem had previously committed similar acts that included the condition he would not indulge in such acts in the future.
Other groups spoke out against the arrest as well.
“It is wrong to suppress a journalist’s freedom of expression,” said David Laiphalang, president of the Shillong Press Club.
At least 31 journalists have been killed in northeast India in the past 30 years, according to data from media reports and journalism associations.
In strife-torn Indian Kashmir, in the north, there have been several instances of journalists being threatened, physically assaulted and detained by unknown gunmen, suspected militants and sometimes police.
Photo journalists have been the soft targets of stone-throwing crowds in the region, which is grappling with an insurgency that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, over the last three decades.
“It is a double-edged sword for a journalist to operate in this conflict region. Under the garb of maintaining law and order during gunfights and shutdown calls by separatists, the security forces often go berserk and physically assault journalists covering the incidents,” Showkat Dar, a journalist working with ETV News, told BenarNews.
“At times, anti-India protesters intimidate and attack journalists during the clashes accusing them of not reporting anti-India protests with prominence,” he said.
A leading English daily, The Hindu, said “the detention of a journalist in Manipur under the stringent National Security Act for a social media post is a clear instance of misuse of power and a blatant violation of his rights as a citizen.”
“It indicates a dangerous trend among those wielding power to invoke laws aimed at preserving public order and security in a casual or vindictive manner, with utter disregard for constitutional provisions that uphold individual liberty,” the paper said in its editorial.
Jhumur Deb in Guwahati, India, and Mohammad Amin Pirzada in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.