Journalist Malini Subramaniam knew she was ruffling a few feathers when she published a series of articles criticizing a government shutdown of schools in central India’s Chhattisgarh state.
But never did it cross her mind that she would be forced to leave the Maoist guerrilla-infested region altogether because of her stories published on Scroll.in, she told BenarNews.
She said she paid the price for questioning India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the Maoist belt, where state police are using draconian laws to silence journalists while they weed out armed communist groups.
Subramaniam, 52, is among a growing number of journalists in Chhattisgarh and other parts of India who complain that, under the country’s Hindu nationalist-led government, they have been threatened or jailed by authorities, or harassed in other ways for trying to do their jobs.
On Feb. 7, a mob threw stones at Subramaniam’s house before she, along with her domestic help, were picked up and detained by the police until she promised to leave the state.
“They (the police) want any journalist, who questions their press releases, out. For the sake of ‘Mission 2016’ – to rid the region of Naxalites by the end of the year – they want to silence all questions. Neutral, impartial reporting is not encouraged,” Subramaniam told BenarNews from the south Indian city of Hyderabad, where she lives.
The Maoist or Naxalite movement, which was born in 1969 as a left-wing revolutionary peasant uprising, is an armed struggle against what its supporters call illegal exploitation by the state of the tribal and peasant population in the resource-rich forested regions of central and eastern India.
The crackdown on journalists, she said, was to ensure that anti-government news did not get national and international attention.
“Even those insisting upon freedom of the press are either arrested with trumped up charges or forced to leave the region,” she said.
‘A climate of fear’
A colleague of hers in Chhattisgarh, Hindi-language journalist Prabhat Singh, was arrested on March 21 after he criticized a senior police official on a localized WhatsApp group. He was charged with circulating obscene material.
Lawyers for Singh, who is well-known in journalistic circles statewide as a fearless reporter who often questions police versions publicly, alleged that police were torturing him.
Singh is one of four journalists from Chhattisgarh to have been jailed over the past year.
Following Singh’s arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nonprofit that promotes press freedom, slammed the state government.
“The arrests and hounding of journalists and their defenders has given way to a climate of fear that risks turning parts of Chhattisgarh into a media black hole,” CPJ’s Sumit Galhotra said.
India’s National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the state government to explain “the illegal arrest, detention and torture of a progressive journalist,” saying human rights defenders were being “targeted for doing their legitimate work as defenders of tribal rights.”
Alok Putul, a BBC radio reporter (pictured below), who, like Subramaniam, was threatened into leaving Chhattisgarh, told BenarNews: “They [the police] feel that if they are presenting a press release about Naxalites surrendering, the media should simply report their version.
“If we question them on the identities of these so-called Naxalites to find out if they haven’t made scapegoats out of innocent villagers, we are instantly labeled ‘anti-national,’ [and] our reports are dubbed ‘biased.’”
Right-wing thought process
Indian journalists said that the situation in Chhattisgarh was an extension of the kind of pressure that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP, which is often criticized for stifling dissent, is exerting across the country to subdue government critics.
“Even previous governments have undermined the freedom of the press, but there has been a lurch to the right-wing thought process in Indian public opinion, and the present government is seeing it and trying to benefit from it,” columnist Ajai Shukla told BenarNews.
In the case of Barkha Dutt, a consulting editor for news channel NDTV, she was called anti-patriotic and subjected to sexually abusive threats on Twitter after she published a column criticizing the recent arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges.
Despite filing a police complaint, no arrests have been made so far in connection with the threats that were made against Dutt in March.
Similarly, Sindhu Sooryakumar, chief coordinating editor for south India’s Asianet TV, said she had received “more than 2,000 threatening and abusive phone calls” after she hosted her Malayalam-language program “Cover Story,” which sought to debate Kumar’s arrest.
Five men linked to right-wing groups have been arrested for those threats to Sooryakumar.
Sagarika Ghose, consulting editor of Times of India, who has faced several threats on social media, including that of being gang-raped, has filed complaints with the Delhi police twice.
But no action was taken, she said.
“I have nothing against constructive criticism, but the character assassination that happens on social media is clearly intended to damage our credibility so that we stop asking questions – an obvious attempt to muzzle the media,” Ghose (pictured below) told BenarNews.
Media not credible: BJP
The BJP, which came to power in May 2014 following a landslide victory, denied it was attempting to choke journalists.
“If the government was trying to control the media there would not be such venomous and negative reporting,” party spokeswoman Meenakshi Lekhi told BenarNews, adding that the media had by and large lost its credibility.
“If the media is being called out for its biases and false reporting by the general public, it is the media itself which is to blame. People have seen through the biased and agenda-driven reporting and have grown impatient and increasingly dismissive of journalists, Lekhi added.