Free Speech in India 2018: The State Rolls On
A Report by the FreeSpeechCollective
Date of Release: 31 December 2018
Author: Geeta Seshu
Editor: Laxmi Murthy
Contributors: Ashlin Mathew, Geeta Seshu, Malini Subramaniam, Laxmi Murthy,
Cover Image: Journalists in the thick of reporting army operations in Srinagar on 8 December 2018, during which a 14-year-old militant was killed .
Credit: Kamran Yousuf
Note: The incidents in this report have been diligently cross-checked via multiple sources. However, information about discrepancies or additions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This report can be freely reproduced for non-commercial use, with attribution and link: https://freespeechcollective.in
Table of Contents
I Killings of journalists
III Detention and Arrests
VI Online Media: Arrests, Shutdowns and Regulation
VII Defamation suits
VIII Contempt of court
X Privacy and Surveillance
XI Government Control, Policy and Regulation
XII Judicial orders
Overview: The State flexes its muscles, other assaults continue unabated
Free speech in India came under attack on all fronts in 2018. Alarmingly, even as assaults continued unabated, the State was all set to take on the mantle of the chief censor with repressive regulatory and surveillance mechanisms being put in place even as the year was winding down.
There was no respite from the killings and attacks on media professionals, censorship of news, an unprecedented number of legal notices, defamation and sedition cases filed against journalists, social and political activists and citizens who voiced dissent.
To make matters worse, there continued to be a high degree of Internet censorship throughout the year, with the highest number of shutdowns anywhere in the world. In December, the Union government, through an order by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), authorized ten agencies to monitor, intercept and decrypt the digital devices of all citizens, an order that has grave implications for journalists.
In 2018, seven journalists were killed in relation to their work, at least 27 incidents of attacks on 33 journalists took place, there were arrests of at least ten journalists and the detention of six others (including three foreign journalists), at least 17 instances of threats and harassment and 114 instances of censorship of news, film, academia, cultural events and public meetings.
The unreasonable and illegal restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in India came from multiple quarters – the State, both at the Centre and respective state governments, non-state actors and vigilante groups like the Karni Sena in Rajasthan, Maoists in Bastar, members of political parties, student groups aligned with political parties or corporate houses that use legal mechanisms like defamation cases and even the judiciary with at least nine free-speech related contempt cases.
The grim picture immediately preceding an election year has raised apprehensions that there will be further State regulation and control of dissent, even as corporate houses and political groups seek to clamp down on news with SLAPP suits and defamation cases.
Free Speech Snapshot 2018
|Category||No. of cases|
|Killings of Journalists||07|
|Arrests of Journalists
|Detention of Journalists
|06 (including three foreign journalists)|
|Deportation of Journalists
|Arrests of other citizens||16|
|Attacks on Journalists||33 (27 incidents)|
|Contempt of Court cases||09|
Highlights of 2018:
- Seven journalists killed due to their work.
- No convictions in past cases of killings of journalists; total impunity continues on killings of journalists in India.
- Karnataka SIT arrests 16 persons — several of them linked to Sanatan Sanstha, its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and other radical Hindutva groups — in connection with Gauri Lankesh’s murder.
- At least 27 attacks on media persons and citizens, some life-threatening cases; petrol bombs on journalist’s residence, college lecturer doused with kerosene.
- Instances of threats and harassment increase, more vicious and dangerous. Online harassment of women journalists continues.
- At least 10 journalists arrested while six others (including three foreign journalists) were detained for different periods, the longest being the one-year detention of a journalist in Manipur under the National Security Act (NSA).
- At least 115 instances of censorship, ranging from curbs on news in print, broadcast and online media; protests and cases against film titles, songs and dialogues and bans on film screenings; disruptions and vandalism in documentary film screenings, theatre performances and art shows, cases lodged against authors and take down of content in school text-books.
- In 2018, 16 persons arrested, while seven were booked and one detained, for expressing dissenting views on social media platforms
- Critics of political parties, leaders and of heads of government, both at the states and the centre, were picked up and jailed.
- At least 133 instances of Internet shutdowns in India, documented by the Internet Shutdown tracker of the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC).
- Increase in takedowns of online content, both at the behest of corporate houses and the State.
- Increasing surveillance by the government on the accounts of social media users. Transparency reports by Facebook and Twitter testify to increase in government requests for information about user accounts.
- Several attempts by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to regulate media, including setting up a social media monitoring hub, a committee to regulate online content and revamping a Central Press Accreditation Committee to vet journalists.
- Union Government seeks encryption access from Whatsapp.
- Union Ministry of Home Affairs allows ten “Security and Intelligence” agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt data on any computer.
- Draft rules under the Information Technology Act, 2000, make it mandatory for online platforms to “proactively” ferret content seen as “unlawful” and break end-to-end encryption. Government to hold public consultations but only gives time till January 15, 2019 for submissions.
- Several state governments, including those of Telangana, West Bengal, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab bring in slew of regulations and legislations covering entry into state assemblies, defamation, social media, fake news and blasphemy.
- At least 37 free speech-related defamation cases, filed by corporates, political party leaders and those accused in the #MeToo movement.
- Nine free speech-related contempt of court cases in a year in which the judiciary has been under the most intense scrutiny and began with the historic press conference by four senior-most judges.
- Of the four freedom of expression-related sedition cases, two relate to social media posts, including against Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla. Madhya Pradesh resident 21-year-old Junaid Khan, spends five months in jail on sedition charges for being administrator of a Whatsapp group in which allegedly objectionable posts had been made. Delhi police file a draft charge-sheet in JNU sedition case against students.
- Judiciary continues to provide relief, but slowly and unevenly. Courts reject restraints on media coverage of the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case and RK Pachauri sexual harassment case but award injunctions in other #MeToo cases. However, the media was restrained from reporting on the FIR filed against former Orissa High Court Judge IM Quddusi, an accused in the medical college bribery case.
- Supreme Court quashes FIR against actor Priya Prakash Varrier and dismisses petition seeking ban on Malayalam book Meesha
- Supreme Court permits live streaming of hearings of court cases.
- Madras High Court orders burning of over 2000 books, authored by octogenarian writer Nedumaran.
- Justice R.K. Gauba of the Delhi High Court restores an injunction on the publication and sale of Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev published by Juggernaut Books.
This report comes from the FreeSpeechCollective, which was formed in September 2018 to protect the right to freedom of expression and vigorously promote free speech and the right to dissent. This report seeks to analyse trends and flag important issues related to freedom of expression in India.
Killing of Journalists
This year’s killing of seven journalists in India is once again a grim reminder of the precarious status of safety for journalists in this country. Though the number of deaths is down from the death toll of nine journalists last year, the brutality with which the crimes were committed and the half-hearted response from concerned state governments reflect an eerie nexus between perpetrators and the law keepers.
Of the seven, six were killed in the more remote corners in the country while the assassination of Rising Kashmir editor, Shujaat Bukhari, was in the high security press enclave in the heart of Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
|1 &2||Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh||March 25||Arrah, Bihar||Local leader Mohammad Harshu and son Dabloo|
|3||Sandeep Sharma||March 26||Bhind, Madhya Pradesh||Sand mining mafia, local police officer|
|4||Shujaat Bukhari||June 14||Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir||Suspected to be Lashkar-e-Taiba|
|5||Achyutananda Sahu||Oct 30||Dantewada, Chhattisgarh||Maoist ambush|
|6||Chandan Tiwari||Oct 30||Chatra district, Jharkhand||Private contractor Pintu Singh, Jamuna Prasad and Musafir Rana|
|7||Amit Topno||Dec 8-9||Namkum, Ranchi, Jharkhand||Unidentified persons|
Table 1: Journalists killed in India, 2018
In March, two journalists – Navin Nischal and his colleague Vijay Singh, working for Dainik Bhaskar – were killed on the spot as an SUV rammed their bike in Bhojpur district of Bihar. A local leader Mohammad Harshu and his son Dabloo, are prime suspects, according to an FIR lodged by Singh’s brother. Police have arrested both of them The superintendent of police, Bhojpur district, when contacted for progress in the case, promised to “look into the case” and update. A response from him is awaited.
In a similar incident, Sandeep Sharma, working as a channel reporter with News World, was run over by a dumper truck in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, in a deliberate attempt to silence his reporting on illegal sand mining in the district. Sharma had conducted a ‘sting operation’ capturing a sub-divisional police officer accepting a bribe of Rs. 12,500 to allow transport of sand illegally mined from the National Chambal Sanctuary. Sharma had sought police protection as he suspected the said police officer would go to any extent to silence him “The driver who was arrested has been granted bail and the trial is on,” informed a local journalist from Bhind when contacted.
Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, was brutally shot down by bike-borne assailants as he was coming out of his office and getting into his car in the high-security Press Enclave in Srinagar. One of his security guards died on the spot, and the other, critically injured, also lost his life. While the police pointed fingers at militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) for the attack, LeT chief Mehmood Shah denied the charge and called it “propaganda” to defame the group. An investigation by the Special Investigation Team identifed and took into custody the three gunmen on the bike whose images were captured on CCTV footage. A fourth suspect was arrested on 15 June 2018. On 27 June 2018, one of the three gunmen was identified as Naveed Jutt, a Pakistani national, who was reportedly acting on orders from the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership. In February 2018, Jutt had escaped from police custody from Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital. On 27 November Naveed Jutt, was one of the two militants shot dead in an encounter in Budgam district.
In October this year, 32-year-old Chandan Tiwari, a journalist from Chatra district of Jharkhand was abducted and beaten to death. Similar to the case of Sandeep Sharma, Tiwari, who worked with the Hindi language daily Aaj too had filed a complaint of a risk to his life after he received life threats for exposing irregularities in the government’s housing scheme, the PM Awas Yojana, involving a local mukhiya (leader). Tiwari’s family suspects the mukhiya to be behind the fatal attack. The police had provided him with no protection despite his written request.
FreeSpeechCollective contacted the Superintendent of Police Chatra, for an update on the case. The latter asked for the query to be sent by email. No response was received till date.
The same day a Doordarshan video journalist, Achyutananda Sahu, got caught in cross-fire during an ambush by Maoists in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh as he rode pillion with police personnel while covering election-related news in the restive area of Palnar. The banned armed militant group CPI (Maoist) wrote an apology for Sahu’s death claiming that they were unaware that he was a journalist as he was travelling with the police. The police in the meantime, has extended Rs35 lakh compensation to his family. The video camera is still in the possession of the armed group.
On 9 December, the body of Amit Topno, an Adivasi journalist who had been covering the Pathalgadi movement over tribal land rights, was found on the Namkum-Doranda road near Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand. Topno was working with the media company Newscode, and was also a community correspondent of Video Volunteers. There is no clear indication as to who was behind his killing and no arrests were made as of this writing.
Impunity on killings of journalists continued in India with not a single conviction in past cases. Investigations into the killing of Gauri Lankesh proceeded, with the arrest of 16 persons, several of them linked to Sanatan Sanstha, its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and other radical Hindutva groups —including alleged shooter Waghmare and his alleged recruiter Amol Kale.
But in other cases, justice was yet to come and closure for families of those killed still denied.
FreeSpeechCollective tracked some of these cases through the year and will continue to follow up on developments in these and other cases.
Attacks on Journalists
This year saw 27 incidents of attacks against journalists. Thirty-three journalists – from print and electronic media, women and men, reporters, stringers, editors and freelancers, camera persons and video journalists and others in all capacities were targeted in attacks by unidentified yet incited mob, cadres with avowed allegiance to political parties and even police and paramilitary personnel.
Ironically, in a reply to a question in Parliament, Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore said that the government did not have any records of attacks on journalists as the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not compile data divided by professions. The NCRB, which committed to publishing such data since 2014, had announced that it was revising its format for data collection, a process that does not seem to be anywhere near fruition.
Almost all the 27 attacks on the media took place in the line of duty. The North East recorded the largest numbers of attacks – seven – of which notably four were reported from Tripura state alone. The state went to the polls in February and a BJP government was formed after 25 years of a Left Front government.
|Region||No of incidents||No of journalists attacked|
|Northern region (Delhi, Punjab,)||4||5|
|North Eastern states||7 (Tripura – 4)||7|
|Southern region ( Kerala, Karnataka, Vijayawada)||4||7|
|Others – (Gujarat/Maharashtra/Chhattisgarh/Bihar)||4||4|
Table 2: Attacks on journalists 2018 by region
In two cases, BJP supporters and/or RSS workers were accused as attackers by journalist victim survivors. In two separate incidents, Narayan Dhar was assaulted after snatching away their press cards and threatened him and his family with murder. BJP workers had allegedly invited Priyatosh Das to a poultry farm nearby, where the attack took place. Dhar works with Desher Kathaat; a CPI aligned publication while Das works with a TV channel Focus Tripura. In another incident in Tripura, an alleged BJP supporter assaulted Anup Debbaram, a television journalist working with Tripura-based Kokborok TV channel and Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim faced an alarming bomb attack on her residence by unidentified persons.
An incident from Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district was an indicator of the vicious hostility towards journalists, as a BJP MP’s son brutally assaulted the parents of a Hari Bhoomi stringer, Rajesh Pratap Gupta, when he could not find Gupta, who had reported irregularities in the ‘Nal-Jal’ scheme –aimed to eliminate salinity in water– in village Jamgalla. An FIR has been registered against the MP’s son. However, no arrests have been made.
Violence by police and security forces continued across the country. Anushree Fadnavis, a cameraperson with Hindustan Times, was roughed up and molested by police while covering the JNU agitation in Delhi; Pravin Indrekar was beaten up when he was covering police attacks on members of the Chhara community in Chharanagar, Gujarat while Emmy Lawbei was brutally attacked by Assam police on the Assam-Mizoram border.
Television journalist, Suman Debnath, was brutally attacked for his consistent exposures of the blatant corruption in fuel management in his channel and on social media. In a similar incident related to coverage on illegal mining activity in the Bannerghatta National Park in Bengaluru, News 9 TV journalists Nabeela Jamaluddin and her colleagues were surrounded by men who blocked their way as they were returning post coverage of illegal mining activity, and demanded deletion of their footage. In Ramanagar block of Karnataka, mafia supporting an illegal slaughterhouse attacked an India Today reporter as he covered the raid conducted in the slaughter house by animal rights activist under police presence. In a similar attack by the sand mafia, Sandeep Kumar and Neeraj Bali, from News18 were attacked in July this year in Jalalabad Punjab, as they rushed to cover illegal mining on a tip off. They were surrounded by unidentifiable people who attacked them and damaged their video equipment. The duo somehow managed to escape. The police responded only after half an hour when the reporters were warned against going to hospital for treatment without police protection as the mafia could go to any length.
Although in some of the cases suspects have been arrested, the cases do not appear to be moving in the direction of conviction.
In West Bengal, three journalists were attacked allegedly by ruling party supporters and cadres from the ruling Trinamul Congress Party, while covering the Panchayat elections in Alipore and Siliguri. Here too, despite FIRs registered against the perpetrators, no arrests have been made so far, leaving the journalists shaken and wary of reporting.
Other than political party supporters who enjoyed impunity, security personnel assaulted journalists in two incidents in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, but no arrests followed. On 11 October, Two reporters, Fayaz Lalu and Deen Imran working with national TV channels Munsif and Aalmi Sahara were beaten up by CRPF personnel while they were covering clashes over the killing of Hizb commander, Manan Wani. In another incident, Zee news reporter, Aijaz Ahmad was reportedly targeted by the para military with pellet guns when he was covering clashes as security forces launched cordon and search operation (CASO) in Meemandar village in Shopian district. The reporters said they were targeted despite holding up their hands and identifying as press people. No arrests or serious enquiry followed. In July, Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, had teargas thrown into his drawing room by armed forces. This was the second attack in a month following the vandalization of Shah’s cars in his garage, sending shockwaves at the complete abuse of power and the intimidation and attacks unleashed by paramilitary forces against journalists. Journalists covering encounters in trouble-torn Srinagar continued to be targeted by security forces, though in one instance, the police apologized after the attack.
Journalists –particularly women journalists– who covered the charged situation in Sabarimala, Kerala, post the Supreme Court allowing women of all ages to worship at the shrine, also became targets of attack. Saritha Balan from The News Minute, Pooja Prasanna of Republic TV, Radhika Ramaswamy of CNN-News 18 and Maushumi Singh of India Today came under mob attack. It later transpired that the mob, ostensibly worshippers who were angry at the Supreme Court judgement, was ‘orchestrated’ by the Kerala BJP as part of its ‘agenda’.
Academics also attacked
While attacks were rife against journalists for bringing out facts which some wish to suppress, even academicians who express their opinion in social media were not spared. In a shocking incident, a professor of sociology, Sanjay Kumar from Mahatma Gandhi Central University at Motihari town, in Bihar who in a Facebook post claimed that former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to be a staunch RSS loyalist and not a Nehruvian socialist, was attacked.
Irked by such comments soon after the recent demise of the former PM, BJP supporters threatened the professor and in the afternoon of 17 August when Kumar was teaching students in his private accommodation, a group of BJP supporters barged into his room, dragged him out, stripped him naked and assaulted him on the streets leaving him badly wounded. They even doused him in petrol, aiming to set fire to him, before he managed to escape.
Detention and Arrests
In perhaps the largest number of arrests and detentions of journalists in recent times, at least 10 journalists were arrested while six others (including three foreign journalists) were detained for different periods, the longest being the one-year detention of a journalist in Manipur under the National Security Act (NSA) for posting a video on his Facebook page using abusive language to criticize the Chief Minister of Manipur and the BJP. Three others faced charges, including one for sedition.
Significantly, some of the arrests were for posts on social media and journalists were not the only ones picked up for this “crime”. At least 14 citizens, including one student, were put behind bars during this year for online posts on social media that were seen as abusive or inflammatory. Clearly, the tolerance levels of those in power are at an all-time low as most of these cases involve the abuse of politicians or of elected heads of government, both at the states and the Centre.
Foreign journalists who came to India to investigate stories found the going very tough. In February, police in Ernakulam, Kerala, picked up two foreign journalists – Alban Alvarez, a French national who works as a correspondent for the French news channel FRANCE24 in India, and Derek Mac Donald, a British national – on charges of trespass and filming without accreditation. They were booked on a complaint from the principal of the Government Law College, Ernakulam, where they were filming.
In November, a case was lodged against two French investigative journalists Arthur Bouvart and Jules Giraudat, for trespassing into the premises of the Indian Rare Earths Ltd in Kanyakumari, while reporting on illegal beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu. The two French journalists left the country but police questioned the two Tamil journalists who assisted them. The Kanyakumari police detained Tamil journalists Anandhakumar and Sriram, who were later granted bail.
On December 28, Cathal McNaughton, chief photographer at the Reuters news agency’s Delhi office was sent back from the airport on his arrival from an overseas trip. The award-winning photojournalist had allegedly violated visa rules by visiting Jammu and Kashmir, restricted for foreign journalists. Journalists who want to travel to restricted areas (Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Himachal Pradesh, parts of Jammu and Kashmir, parts of Rajasthan, all of Sikkim and parts of Uttarakhand) need to apply for a special permit issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (External Publicity Division).
In another incident on 30 December, freelance journalist Mark Scialla was picked up for interrogation by police in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, where he had gone to do a story on the violence and protests against the Vedanta Sterlite factory. He was let off after a few hours.
Two journalists who had gone to cover the Vadayampadi ‘caste wall’ in Kerala found themselves behind bars. Abhilash Padacherry, Editor of Newsport.in, and Ananthu Rajagopal, an intern with Deccan Chronicle, were arrested for ‘obstructing the functioning of public officials and shouting slogans against the police and the State’. The police went on to brand them ‘Maoist supporters’. They were later freed.
While several cases of journalists’ arrests did not hit the headlines, the arrest of journalist and defence expert Abhijit Iyer-Mitra by Odisha police for posting a video on Twitter poking fun at religious structures got a lot of coverage on social media. He was released only after spending over a month in jail when the Odisha government “pardoned” him.
In a bizarre incident, two reporters who went to cover ‘breaking news’ on the arrest of a prime suspect in a case of dacoity in Palghar, near Mumbai, were arrested as one of them began to film the accused being brought in. Hussain Khan, a stringer with Aaj Tak news channel was first arrested by police. His colleague Ram Parmar, a senior reporter with Hindustan Times, merely asked police why they were arresting Khan, and was also arrested! The duo were charged with assaulting a public servant and obstructing him from discharging his duty. Both reporters were granted bail after spending five days in jail. The Press Council of India conducted a hearing in their case, pulling up the Palghar police and termed their act as “definitely a case of violation of the freedom of the press”.
Chief editor of Nakkeeran R.R. Gopal was arrested under section 124 at the airport as he was about to board his flight, for publishing reports ‘linking the governor to the university sex scandal’, however the court in Chennai refused to grant police custody and set him free. The Chennai Press Club condemned the arrest calling it ‘misuse of authority and law’.
In two separate incidents, journalists found themselves behind bars or facing charges amounting to sedition for reproducing cartoons that featured the President of India, Chief Justice of India and the Prime Minister, or for abusing the BJP. Journalist, Jarir Ahmed Barbhuiya from Assam was arrested on April 28, while the same cartoon in the Facebook post of Chhattisgarh journalist Kamal Shukla was slapped with a sedition case.
The easiest form of intimidation that journalists in Kashmir face is the accusation of being involved in cases related to militants. Accredited journalist Auqib Javeed, working with Kashmir Observer was summoned to National Investigating Agency (NIA) headquarters in Delhi in the case of Asiya Andrabi, chief of Kashmiri women’s separatist groups Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM) arrested by NIA under charges of sedition and UAPA in August. “It appears you are acquainted with the circumstances of the case….” said the letter seeking the journalist’s presence before NIA.
The following month in September, Aasif Sultan, assistant editor with news magazine Kashmir Narrator was rounded up in a midnight raid in Batamaloo area of Srinagar and kept in police custody for six days for his alleged involvement in militant related incidents in the valley. He continues to remain in jail.
Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested in November for posting a video criticizing the Chief Minister of Manipur for organizing a state function linking Rani of Jhansi to the freedom movement in Manipur. Though acquitted from charges of sedition by the court, Wangkhem was picked the next morning under the National Security Act (NSA) which was approved by the state government and fixed the period of detention for a period of one year.
In an attempt to stop journalists from doing an in-depth study of the election preparations in restive Bastar, three journalists were detained for over eight hours in Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh. The superintendent of police was unable to accept that journalists could reach interior villages without his knowledge and permission. Articles published by former BBC journalist, Subir Bhaumik in Al Jazeera and South China Morning Post, were alleged to be inciting communal hatred resulting in an FIR filed against the senior journalist.
The attempts to keep the news of Goa Chief Minister’s health condition under wraps was thwarted when a local journalist, Harish Volvoikar, who runs a website GoaJunction.com, was detained for posting news in February that Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar was undergoing treatment for a pancreatic ailment quoting a BJP leader Sunil Desai. Desai filed a case against the reporter for posting ‘false news in his whatsapp post and misguiding the people’. The journalist was further barred from entering the Goa Assembly. Eight months later, in October, the government finally admitted to the ailment. No further news of the reporter was available.
Journalists are often the first casualty to face threats because of the nature of their work in uncovering and investigating events and issues. While most of these threats go unreported, especially against reporters/stringers from mofussil towns and remote rural areas, the reported threats documented by the FreeSpeechCollective are substantial enough to illustrate the precarious scenario most journalists operate under.
In 2018, there were at least 17 cases reported as plain threats targeting journalists for their work. This is separate from the threats issued to those who contribute to public life by engaging in discourse through their writings, poetry, cartoons, music, film and other art forms. Unaddressed or unacknowledged by the State or political leaders, the threats only help cultivate an atmosphere of fear, reducing the level of freedom of speech and expression to an abysmal low and further endangering the very fabric of democracy. The nature of the intimidation ranged from the seemingly innocuous to the more dangerous and life-threatening.
The death threats to ABP News editor, Pankaj Jha were also directed at his daughter. He received death threats for covering the violence that erupted when a “tiranga yatra” was carried out during Republic Day in Kasganj district of Uttar Pradesh. In its report, ABP put out the provocative speech made by BJP Member of Parliament, Rajveer Singh, that could have triggered the violence. The next morning, Jha began receiving threat calls over the phone of not only shooting him to death but also threats that his daughter would be abducted. Jha filed a report with the police. But there is no further information on action taken.
Principal photographer of The New Indian Express, Kshitij and the reporter, IS Gopika, were threatened and abused when they reached Vadayampadi in Kerala to report on the long drawn “caste wall” battle between the Dalits and disciples of Vadayampadi Bhajanamadom Temple . The reporter, the photographer and the driver were heckled and threatened by the office bearers of the temple forcing them to return as the atmosphere was made vicious for reporting. Later other office bearers called in to apologize to the NIE office, it was reported.
Even senior journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai was not spared when he went to cover Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s election campaign in Mangaluru Karnataka. BJP workers obstructed his work by coming in his way as he walked along the rally covering it live. The workers were reportedly upset over his comment on the BJP and RSS during his reporting.
Political leaders consider themselves above critical reporting, especially during election time. Shivendra Urs of Times of India was caught unawares as he saw his notepad snatched away with threats hurled at him as he busily took notes of public opinion on Congress candidate Tanveer Sait in Narasimharaja constituency in Mysuru, Karnataka. The police after a complaint from the reporter, registered a case against 12 persons.
Another senior journalist, Ravish Kumar, targeted with death threats and abuses for his ‘truth to power’ reporting since 2015, noted that such calls have not only increased but are getting bolder as they no longer make anonymous calls but send videos. “These people are not anonymous trolls. We have to understand that these people have been given certain position s in different district and you can’t ignore this. The way they are talking, they can gather anywhere as a mob around you,” he said.
In conflict areas such as Chhattisgarh, Kashmir, Jharkhand, Manipur, Assam and other states, threats to journalists can be of other kind. Journalists are stopped, not allowed to visit remote villages, often visited by uniformed men to send a message in the neighbourhood, quizzed about anything. Linga Kodopi, an Adivasi journalist from Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, had made it known to the larger public via social media cases of atrocities, molestation of school girls and arrests of innocent villagers by security forces and recently raised the matter when central Para military personnel entered school premise on the pretext of celebrating the ‘raksha bandhan’ festival had molested school girls. When Kodopi was returning from the village he was stopped at a checkpoint and threatened. The central Para military force stationed there denied the charges when the matter was raised with the district superintendent of police.
Threats expressed against women journalists are explicit not only with threats of violence but also with rape and other gendered threats and character assassination. Rana Ayyub, journalist and author of the book Gujarat Files, faced severe threats and harassment. Various means were adopted by those upset over Ayyub’s candid reportage –voice calls, text messages, Whatsapp Facebook, Instagram, twitter. A parody account was opened in her name and atrocious messages – hate India, hating Indians – appeared from that account as if she were making these statements. This was primarily to invite rape threats, hate messages and even morphed images of hers on porn films began to appear. Her phone numbers and addresses were shared almost inviting all to bring harm to her. ‘It’s someone who is in the know of things and aware of my whereabouts, someone who wants to intimidate me and say, ”we know where you are.”.
Online trolling of Sandhya Ravishankar, a Chennai based independent journalist, began to take dangerous turns as she noticed unidentified men loitering outside her house and tampering with her bike. Ravishankar has been diligently exposing sand mafia in Tamil Nadu and has been under target from the mining mafia since her series on illegal sand mining were published in 2017. The situation is going from bad to worse as she was defamed as an anti-national leaking sensitive information outside the country.
‘One more Gauri Lankesh in the making’ was the tweet from a twitter handle claiming to be ‘A Proud Hindustani’ as a direct death threat to journalist and author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, Swati Chaturvedi, a seasoned journalist. “I have been in this profession for 20 years but have only started receiving such threats for the last four years and eight months,” said Chaturvedi recounting the rampant and heightened threats.
One does come across a number of incidents where BJP workers or RSS cadres going hammer and tong in several cases of threats and harassments against free speech, however this does not absolve others, including political parties, in positions of power. In a live television debate, Aam Aadmi Party’s MLA Somnath Bharti hurled abuses at the woman journalist, who filed an FIR against him. While Bharti threatened to file a defamation case against the journalist, his party condemned his attitude towards the woman journalist.
In October, Telegraph reporter, Amit Bhelari got abused and death threats for writing against Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family. Bhelari has filed a written complaint with the police who promised to investigate. Bhelari had reportedly said he was surprised at receiving such threat calls in his 10 years work as a journalist. In one incident from Assam, a local journalist had to bow and apologize before leaving as the question raised by him angered the Member of Parliament from Dhubri constituency.
All United Democratic Front chief Badruddin Ajmal threatened to “smash the head” when the journalist asked which party they would be in alliance with. The journalist later filed a complaint against the MP and admitted to having apologized out of compulsion as his supporters were ready to thrash him had he not apologized.
Soon after the assassination of Shujaat Bukhari, journalists in Kashmir were threatened and asked to “fall in line” and asked by a BJP leader to “mend their ways” over their style of reporting and not create a “wrong environment”. This was said by BJP’s former Minister of Environment Choudhary Lal Singh, piqued at journalists persistently reporting on the Kathua incident of abduction, rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl. Singh had participated in a rally protesting the arrest of eight persons in the Kathua incident. The Minister had to resign following mass protests but continued to make inflammatory remarks.
Chennai correspondent of Mirror Now Pramod Madhav was beaten up allegedly by Dravida Munnetra Kazagam (DMK) cadres when he tried to shoot a protest organized by the political party. DMK party cadres got into a scuffle with a local tea stall which Madhav filmed. Angered at this party workers punched the reporter pushing him to the ground. Although the party denied any involvement, one of their workers was identified and arrested.
With the level of intolerance rising and becoming more vicious, other intellectuals, artists, poets, singers and such other artists are also under fire. Any criticism against the ruling dispensation is attacked as ‘hate speech’ against Hindus. As the 62-year-old poet from Kerala, Kureepuzha Sreekumar, was about to leave the venue of a public function in Kadakkal, Kollam district, alleged RSS workers surrounded him, verbally abused and threatened him. His address at a function on the Vadayampadi “caste wall” issue was said to have been critical of the Sangh Parivaar. Kerala police filed case against 15 persons and arrested seven activists from the Sangh Parivaar. The BJP district committee filed a petition with the police claiming the poet’s remarks in the function to be “highly provocative” and trying to “incite communal disharmony”.
Cartoonist Swathi Vadlamudi received death threats on Facebook and an FIR was lodged against her by Hindu Sangathan when she posted her cartoon depicting the god Ram and Sita from the Hindu epic Ramayana. Attempting to highlight growing violence against women, the cartoon shows Sita communicating to her husband Ram that she was glad to have been kidnapped by Ravan and not his bhakts (followers).
Seventy-two year-old Konkani writer and Sahitya Akademi award Winner Damodar Mauzo had to be provided police protection as intelligence inputs were received about threats to his life for his open statement in a seminar in Gujarat that he was both proud and ashamed of hailing from Goa – proud for what Goa stood as an example of communal harmony and ashamed of Goa being a headquarter of right-wing organization Sanathan Santha. Sanathan Santha is said to be involved in the murder of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in the previous years.
Blatant curbing of freedom of expression was clearly visible in campuses and in academia as well. In July this year, the student wing of the RSS, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) with their protests managed to have the programme on ‘Dialogue on Freedom of Expression’ cancelled by Delhi University administration, where a magazine produced by Delhi University students was to have been formally launched. In the growing insecurity amongst minority communities, Anil Couto, the Archbishop had put out a letter to all the churches in Delhi ‘to pray for the country’ ahead of the 2019 election referring to the “turbulent political atmosphere that threatens democracy and secularism”. Although the Bishop referred to no particular party, Union Minister in the BJP, Giriraj Singh, alleged that the Church is “trying to start a civil war in the country”.
Carnatic musicians from Tamil Nadu like Nityashree Mahadevan and OS Arun had to face online wrath of right wing fringe groups who called them ‘traitors of Hinduism’ and ‘disgusting cretins’ for singing devotional songs for religions other than Hinduism.
The least the profession of journalism could expect is professional recognition. How does one explain the condescending behaviour of the Banwarilal Purohit, Governor in Tamil Nadu who instead of responding to a question put forth by Week correspondent Lakshmi Subramanian, pats her on the cheek for reply. In a press conference addressed by the Governor in the ‘sex for degrees’ scandal involving a professor who promised financial and academic rewards to students in lieu of sex. At the other extreme is the case of Saurabh Agarwal, who runs a local daily Dainik Syahi in Chhattisgarh, who, out of desperation and helplessness, tried to kill himself by drinking poison in front of the district court in Raigarh. In a video he shot before the act, the journalist said that he had four FIRs registered against him as a reward for exposing a local BJP leader Vijay Agarwal.
This year has been a roller-coaster for censorship. There have been at least 114 instances of censorship documented by the FreeSpeechCollective. These ranged from curbs on news in print, broadcast and online media; protests and cases against film titles, songs and dialogues and bans on film screenings; disruptions and vandalism in documentary film screenings, theatre performances and art shows, cases lodged against authors and take down of content in school text-books.
Censorship of film, both feature films and documentaries, remained the highest of these instances. The censorship was marked by a high degree of intolerance of dissent from government bodies or private agencies. All manner of strong-arm techniques were deployed to silence critics.
Despite obtaining certificates for exhibition from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), vigilante groups, political parties, social interest groups and others had a field day staging violent protests to ban films or made demands for changes in film titles, dialogues and lyrics.
|Culture (Art/Music/Theatre, Events etc)||22|
Table 3: Censorship in India 2018
The following are some instances of censorship in different categories:
The year began with the high-voltage drama in January, enacted by the Karni Sena, an organization of Rajputs who were adamant that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film about a fictitious queen Padmavati should not be released in theatres. Claiming that the film denigrated Rajputs, they threatened to kill people and even chop off their noses. Eventually, the title of the film was changed from Padmaavati to Padmavat, some scenes were changed and the movie was released in some sectors. However, it remained unreleased in several states, including Rajasthan Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana mainly due to self-censorship by multiplex owners who wanted to avoid trouble.
However, the most significant development for censorship of film was the attempt to regulate content on subscription-based online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Film-makers embraced the platforms, hoping it would circumvent regulation for public exhibition. Films with a lesbian theme like Unfreedom, which was banned by the CBFC, were released on Netflix. But soon, petitions were filed seeking censorship of the platforms citing fears of sexually explicit content. There were demands to delete allegedly objectionable references to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (complaints on which were withdrawn following a tweet by Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi that he upheld freedom of expression).
(The tweet was cited again towards the end of the year to deny BJP claims that the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh was trying to censor and ban the film, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’. Chief Minister Kamal Nath later made a statement that the film would not be banned).
By the end of the year, a few of the streaming platforms came together to evolve a self-regulatory code and it remains to be seen if this will mollify offence-takers.
Meanwhile, other censorship attempts continued, sometimes for the most bizarre reasons. Mobile phone companies took objection to the Rajnikant starrer 2.0 for its unscientific content, and it is reported that several words were muted in the film. These include Puttrunoi (Cancer), Karusidhaivu (miscarriage), Aanmai kuraivu (impotence), Lanjam (corruption) and 45 Varudam (45 years) while the film-makers have also asked to remove the word ‘Unicell’ from the movie.
The former CBFC board chief Pahlaj Nihalani found himself on the other side as he moved the Bombay High Court against multiple cuts ordered for his film ‘Rangeela Raja’. A Malayalam documentary on the Emergency, titled ’21 Months of Hell’, was denied the censor certificate by the CBFC, on grounds of ‘too much violence’ but a film on RSS leader Shama Prasad Mukherjee got a U/A certificate.
While political parties, especially in Tamil Nadu, continued to object to the depiction of their leaders in cinema, the newly elected Madhya Pradesh government refused pleas seeking a ban on the film ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, citing its support for freedom of expression.
At least six films were rejected from screening by the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) as they were deemed to be ‘anti-national’.
Documentaries continued to be censored. While there was no respite this year too for film-makers battling in courts for the release of their films ‘En Dino Muzaffarnagar’ or ‘Charlie and the Coca Cola Company’, other films came under the scanner. Suman Ghosh’s documentary on Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen had to delete the word ‘Gujarat’, a documentary on Kashmir ‘In the shade of the fallen chinar’ could not be exhibited in a film festival and a film ‘No Fathers in Kashmir’, was denied a certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
The courts continued to provide some relief but this was not uniform throughout the country. The Bombay High Court rejected pleas to ban feature film ‘Kedarnath’, and the Delhi High Court rejected a CBFC decision refusing a certificate for the documentary ‘Battle of Benares’.
The Supreme Court rejected the demand of the Raza Academy of Mumbai to ban the song ‘Manikya Malaraya Poovi’, starring Priya Varrier from the film ‘Onu Adaar Love’, since it allegedly insults Prophet Mohammad and his wife Khadeeja Bibi. Earlier, police in Hyderabad filed a case against the filmmakers and Varrier under section 295A of Indian Penal Code (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs). On August 31, the Supreme Court quashed the FIR and observed, “the Malayalam folk song, on which the song has been picturised with Varrier, has been in the public domain since 1978 and the song video cannot be termed as blasphemous.”
However, the Madras High Court actually entertained a plea on the film ‘Sarkar’ that was allegedly insulting to the ruling AIADMK where the film-maker, AR Murugadoss, who had applied for anticipatory bail, was asked by the government’s counsel to give an undertaking that he would never again make a film which is critical of the government’s policies. The film had already received a certificate from the CBFC.
There were at least 31 instances of censorship of news, including at least three injunctions granted by courts on media coverage of testimonies in the #MeToo movement. The curbs on print and broadcast media ranged from gags on journalists criticising the government, the banning of newspapers where certain articles were written and there were media blackouts when Opposition candidates began to win elections.
There were blatant attempts by the government to restrict media access to news and information. At least four state governments came up with diktats limiting movement of journalists in government offices and an attempt to censor online content.
Government censors were not the only ones, though, as media houses also sacked journalists who aired opinions on social media that were seen as criticism of the media house. Angshukanta Chakraborty, political editor of DailyO, a website that is part of the India Today group, was fired for refusing to delete a tweet criticising media promoters for turning a blind eye to “hate-mongering, fake news spreading” TV anchors and editors while former ABP News anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai wrote a candid account of how he was forced to leave the channel due to censorship of his show ‘Masterstroke’.
These instances, combined with the large-scale job losses and job insecurity in the media industry, the barely acknowledged self-censorship practiced by media houses and the doctoring of news exposed by the Cobrapost stings, affect press freedom and ultimately undermine free speech.
A few other instances:
- At least eight websites delete satirical story on speech given by Anant Ambani, son of Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani, at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the Reliance group.
- PIL to ban article ‘Tamizhai Andal’ penned by lyricist Vairamuthu for a Tamil daily filed in the Madras High Court.
- NIA submits so-called ‘guidelines’ for journalists as part of the evidence that Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was not a ‘real’ journalist as, according to the NIA, as he did not cover “developmental activity of any government department” or “inauguration of a hospital or a school” or “statement of any political party in power”.
- Officials in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur – the home base of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath – blacked out the counting for parliamentary by polls and banned the media allegedly as soon as trends started favouring the opposition candidate over that of the ruling BJP. The media regained access only after protests and political outrage.
- Journalists demanded the scrapping of the Central Press Accreditation Committee as it did not include fair representation of media. The government withdrew the notification.
- The admin of Facebook page ‘Spirit of Telangana’ was arrested for allegedly making derogatory remarks against the government.
- Delhi magistrate’s Court ‘restrained’ the media from reporting on the FIR filed against former Orissa High Court Judge IM Quddusi, an accused in the medical college bribery case.
- Goa government restricts media entry and access to Goa Assembly.
- Media houses warned not to reveal identity of minor victim in Kathua case.
- In May, Dainik Bhaskar group got a stay order restraining Cobrapost from releasing part 2 of ‘Operation 136’ sting exposing nation’s leading media houses, including Dainik Bhaskar, who spread fake news for monetary gain to polarise voters favouring the Hindutva agenda. The stay was vacated in September.
- Rajya Sabha TV anchor Neelu Vyas was benched for asking a question to a studio guest about Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1942 undertaking that he would not participate in any anti-British movement. The decision was taken after Vice President Venkaiah Naidu reportedly expressed anger at the question. The channel was forced to run an apology and the clip was also removed from RSTV’s YouTube channel so that it does not show up in internet searches.
- CPI-M’s mouthpiece Daily Desher Katha, a Bengali daily, was banned for allegedly violating the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867. The 40-year-old newspaper was served a notice in this regard by the office of Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI).
Culture: Theatre, Art and Music Events
There were at least 22 instances of censorship of culture, including theatre, art, literature and music, including the cancellation of performances and events like talks and discussions. The instances ranged from threats against Tamil singer S Kovan, Malayalam writer S Hareesh for his novel Meesha (Moustache), the cancellation of the performance of ‘Jis Lahore Na Vekhya’, written by Asghar Wajahat in Aligarh Muslim University, the cancellation of show of stand up comedian Kunal Kamra in MS University in Gujarat, the cancellation of an event featuring actor Naseerudin Shah in Ajmer after his comments expressing apprehensions over Hindutva propaganda.
The renowned Carnatic music vocalist TM Krishna took on right-wing protestors when he decided to perform songs that extolled Jesus Christ and Allah. The backlash came in the form of online trolling and the abrupt cancellation of a performance by the Airports Authority of India on 15 November in New Delhi. Krishna promised to perform at another venue and the AAP-government in Delhi quickly organized a performance at another venue.
The High Court of Madras dismissed the appeal by author Pazha Nedumaran and ordered authorities to destroy 1709 copies of his book that reportedly supports the banned Sri Lankan Tamil militant organization LTTE, stating “When LTTE has been declared as unlawful association, if the books were returned to the appellant, naturally, he will circulate the books to general public and there is every possibility of the general public and/or buyer of the books get persuaded by the principles of the banned organization and cause disturbance and threat to the peace and public tranquillity.”
Instances illustrating the range of censorship of culture:
|Feb 16||FIRs lodged against actor Priya Prakash Varrier for song in Malayalam movie ‘Oru Adaar Love’ allegedly insults Prophet Mohammad and his wife.||Religious groups|
|March 31||A cultural body, ‘Punjab Sabhyacharak Commission’ set up to check “vulgarity” in Punjabi songs.||Punjab Government|
|April 14||Tamil singer Kovan arrested for singing songs allegedly criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister E. Palaniswamy and some state policies.||BJP Youth Wing|
|May 11||Restraint on publication and sale of book ‘Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev’, by author Priyanka Pathak Narain and publisher M/s Juggernaut books||Yoga guru Ramdev|
|July 21||Malayalam writer S Hareesh withdraws his novel ‘Meesha’ (Moustache) after threats||Right-wing groups|
|July 23||MS University in Gujarat’s Vadodara cancels show by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra after threats that he “mimics the national anthem” and supports ‘divisive’ forces.||Former students owing allegiance to right-wing political parties|
|Nov 15||Airports Authority of India calls off concert in Delhi in which Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna was scheduled to perform||Campaign by right-wing trolls|
|Nov 18||Drama society of Aligarh Muslim University play ‘Jis Lahore Na Vekhya’ cancelled due to poster of a map of pre-Independence India. The well-known play, set in 1947, is about an old Hindu woman in a haveli allotted to a Muslim family after partition.||Aligarh Muslim University administration|
|Nov 26||Bookseller working for ‘Hariti Publications’, which publishes Ambedkarite and progressive literature is roughed up||Pune unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)|
In Academia, censorship was at an all-time high with several textbooks and reading material promoting independent and critical thought either being taken off the syllabus or with changes in content. The University Grants Commission axed 4,305 journals from its ‘approved list of journals’. The new list of recognised journals has excluded several key titles and reputed names, including the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly and Forward Press. The UGC will accept only ‘good quality journals after verification, Minister of State for Human Resources Development Satya Pal said in the Rajya Sabha.
In November, historian, biographer and author Ramachandra Guha announced that he would not be teaching at Ahmedabad University (AU) in Gujarat two weeks after the RSS student wing opposed his appointment and demanded that the university rescind its offer.
Online Media: Arrests, Shutdowns and Regulation
A disturbing finding of the FreeSpeechCollective was that the government was the chief culprit in stifling free speech in India in 2018. This was achieved by a combination of takedowns of posts, videos or comments critical of the government, and arrests of the individuals who made them.
In 2018, 16 persons were arrested, while seven were booked and one detained, for expressing their dissent on social media platforms.
Most prominent among these were the arrests of Tamil Nadu television actress Nilani, for lambasting the government over the police firing that killed 13 protestors in Thoothukudi during the Vedanta-Sterlite agitation, journalist and defence analyst Abhijit Mitra-Iyer for his satirical videos alleged to have denigrated Odisha culture and pride, and Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who condemned the state government for celebrating the anniversary of Rani Laxmi bai of Jhansi. Another Manipuri citizen spent a night in jail for his Facebook post criticizing the Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh.
Among other trends, individuals were arrested and jailed for offending religious and community sentiments. Four people were arrested, and one booked, for criticizing former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the aftermath of his death.
The Internet Shutdown tracker of the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) reported that there were at least 133 instances of internet shutdowns in India in 2018, at least 60 of which were in Jammu and Kashmir, 56 in Rajasthan, 12 each in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana and 11 in Gujarat. These shutdowns and slowdowns directly impact both newsgathering and dissemination, especially during periods of strife when the need for credible news is crucial.
Corporate houses succeeded in taking down posts mocking their products or persons associated with the firm. In one such instance, the articles appeared to have been taken down by the publications of their own volition.
Another worrying aspect is the increasing trend of surveillance by the government on the accounts of social media users. A Facebook report revealed that compared to 2017, the year 2018 saw an increase of 68 per cent in the number of requests for information about user accounts by the government. One of the most controversial steps in this direction was the setting up of the social media monitoring hub proposed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which was subsequently withdrawn after a huge public outcry.
Government attempts to regulate social media continued through the year, with attempts to seek encryption access from WhatsApp. The year ended with the controversial order issued on 20 December by the Ministry of Home Affairs to allow ten “Security and Intelligence” agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt data on any computer.
The order was issued under Section 69(1) of the IT Act to the following agencies: Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation; National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (For service areas of Jammu & Kashmir, North-East and Assam only) and Commissioner of Police, Delhi. On December 24, the order was challenged in the Supreme Court as being “illegal, unconstitutional and contrary to public interest”.
However, the attempts to regulate the Internet didn’t stop there. Draft rules under the Information Technology Act, 2000, now propose to make it mandatory for online platforms to “proactively” ferret content seen as “unlawful”, and break end-to-end encryption. After protests, the government decided to hold public consultations but gave time only till January 15, 2019 for submissions.
India had the dubious distinction of experiencing the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world in 2018 – as many as 133 instances, according to data collected by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) in its Internet Shutdowns project. The reasons, given by district administration and local police, can be as varied as quelling potential disturbances due to agitations, prevention of examination paper leakages and even over rumours that Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi would address the Friday prayers in Srinagar’s Jama Masjid.
SFLC said that, of the 130 instances this year, at least 30 were in Rajasthan alone. In addition, according to a response to its RTI queries, the Rajasthan government set up only 11 review committees for 40 internet shutdowns ordered between July 2017 to May 2018. At least 29 instances of Internet shutdowns in Rajasthan did not have a review committee meeting during the eight months in question, SFLC reported. Internet shutdown rules state that a committee must be convened within five days of each shutdown.
SFLC recorded 121 instances of internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir since 2012 with varying duration. In the heavily militarized state, with frequent disruptions, slowdown of broadband speed and the total breakdown in civic life due to the outbreak of conflict, the internet has provided connectivity for education as well as entertainment, besides providing an outlet for political expression.
Indeed, all over the country, even the notion that access to the Internet is a fundamental right, recognized by the UN for the last few years, cuts no ice with this government, With more and more overt censorship, regulation and surveillance, the dawn of a Digital India may well be its twilight.
The year 2018 saw courts across India weigh in on the ever-present and contradictory pull between the right to free speech and the constitutional restrictions placed on it. Defamation suits – both civil and criminal – were used to silence inquiry, dissent and free expression. Journalists and media houses were the category most required to defend their right to free speech, while political figures and corporations filed the maximum number of cases of defamation. While there were five orders delivered that restricted free speech, eight orders went in favour of upholding free speech.
On February 22, 2018, seven years after Arindam Chaudhuri dean and founder of the IIPM (Indian Institute of Planning and Management) filed a defamation suit against The Caravan magazine for carrying an article titled ‘Sweet smell of success — How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune of the aspirations and insecurities of India’s middle classes’, the Delhi High Court vacated the injunction passed against Caravan magazine in the Rs 50 crore defamation suit. The High Court also upheld the magazine’s defence of truth and adherence to fact in its article. Vacating the April 12, 2011 interim injunction passed by civil judge, Cachar, Silchar, Assam, and dismissing the application moved by IIPM, Justice Manmohan observed, “…there is no material at this stage to conclude that the stories have been published by the defendants with a reckless disregard for truth or precipitated by actual malice or that the defence of justification/truthfulness/fair comment is one that cannot succeed.”
Setting a welcome precedent, the right to ridicule was upheld by the Madras High Court on April 5, 2018, in the criminal defamation case against cartoonist Karna. The cartoon had been published on January 7, 2013, in the Dinamalar, lampooning former chief minister and DMK leader M Karunanidhi and his party members. Said Justice GR Swaminathan, “Since a cartoonist’s task is to shape public opinion, the threshold for suing them for defamation must be much higher than that of other cases.”
In another case against an employee of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kochi, on October 23, the High Court upheld the right to speak out on social media as part of the right to free speech.
|Social media platform||3|
*Case disposed due to death of complainant
Table 4: Break-up of defamation cases
Silencing by strategic law suits
Big corporations using SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) to intimidate journalists and media houses continued to be a major trend in 2018. However, a blow for freedom of the press was struck in the criminal defamation case filed by the Adani Group against The Wire and others for publishing an article which the Adani group had said was published “with the sole intention of harming the reputation of the complainant”. On July 27, 2018, a Gujarat court set aside the defamation case “lacked any cogent reasoning”. The article, Modi Government’s Rs 500 crore bonanza for the Adani Group, authored by former editor of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha and three others had claimed the Centre had amended Special Economic Zone rules to facilitate duty reimbursements for raw materials to Adani Power Limited, leading to a benefit of Rs 500 crore.
The article was first published in the EPW on June 14, 2017 and then on The Wire on June 19 with permission from the EPW. Following a legal notice from the Adani Group, the EPW took down the story, and in protest, Thakurtha resigned as editor. However, The Wire refused to take down the story, only agreeing to change one word and remove one sentence from the article upon the court’s direction in December 2017. The Adani Group went on to file a criminal defamation suit on January 18, 2018, which was set aside in July.
The Wire, however, is still battling several cases of defamation. The year began on a dismal note for the news portal when on January 8, the Gujarat High Court rejected its petition to quash the criminal defamation case against it. The case was filed by Jay Shah, son of BJP chief Amit Shah against Rohini Singh, the author, founding editors of the news portal Siddharth Varadarajan, Siddharth Bhatia and M K Venu, managing editor Monobina Gupta, public editor Pamela Philipose and the Foundation for Independent Journalism, which publishes The Wire.
The High Court said that the article ‘The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah’ was defamatory per se and allowed the trial court to proceed with the case. It also restored the gag order on the Wire, prohibiting the portal from publishing any article about Jay Amit Shah pending disposal of the case. On March 15, 2018, however, the Supreme Court stayed defamation proceedings in the criminal matter against the news portal The Wire and in its hearing on April 24, asked the two parties to come to a settlement in the civil defamation case of Rs 100 crore and remarked that “there cannot be any gagging of the press”. The stay was further extended to August 8, 2018.
On April 28, the Piramal Group refuted what it called “false allegations” made by The Wire in its story on what amounted to conflict of interest in the sale by Minister of State Piyush Goyal to the Piramal Group. The Piramal Group contemplated defamatory action, against The Wire, and reporter Rohini Singh. The Wire reacted to the Piramal Group’s rebuttal by standing by the story and asserting that the public had the right to know about dealings by ministers, and that the journalist concerned had carried out due diligence by approaching the Piramal Group for its account, which the latter declined to supply.
Zee media, one of India’s largest media houses, sent legal notices and threatened legal action if The Wire, Cobrapost and other platforms did not take down the story reporting the Cobrapost sting in which big media houses allegedly showed positive responses to an undercover reporter posing as a business man promoting the Hindutva agenda through lucrative proposals.
Billionaire industrialist Anil Ambani resorted to defamation cases several times during the year – ramping up the scale of damages sought. According to media reports, the Reliance Group filed 28 cases in Ahmedabad courts in 2018. On August 26, 2018, he filed a Rs 5000 crore suit against the Congress-owned daily National Herald, over allegedly “libellous and derogatory” content in a report about the Rafale defence deal. The civil defamation suit was filed in Ahmedabad by Reliance Defence, Reliance Infrastructure and Reliance Aerostructure, against the Associated Journals Limited, the publisher of the National Herald, its editor in-charge Zafar Agha, and author of the article, Vishwadeepak.
On October 23, 2018, Ambani’s Reliance Group filed a Rs 7,000 crore defamation suit against founder editor of The Citizen, Seema Mustafa, for its reportage on the Rafale defence deal. The case was filed before the Ahmedabad City Civil Court at Gujarat. The Citizen, a non-funded news organization founded and edited by Mustafa responded, “We believe in professional integrity and maintain a code of ethics centering on public trust, truthfulness, fairness, integrity, independence and accountability. We are determined to fight for the truth.”
It was a year for Baba Ramdev’s continued courtroom battles to protect his reputation. Patanjali Ayurved Ltd, Ramdev’s multi-billion dollar company, came down heavily on online media platforms, winning an injunction against Google, Facebook and Youtube on August 16. In its interim order, the Delhi High Court asked for taking down of “defamatory” videos about Patanjali. Later in the year, on September 30, Delhi Court restrained the publication and sale of a biography entitled From Godman to Tycoon by journalist Priyanka Pathak Narain. The book was released in July 2017 and Ramdev had approached the courts in August that year.
In what could be termed overreach, multinational giant Pepsico sued Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram for allowing their platforms to spread “defamatory and disparaging” information about its Kurkure brand of snacks which videos alleged contained inflammable plastic, hazardous to human consumption. Nikhil Jois, who uploaded the video, received a notification on July 20 from Twitter that his account details (which might include an archive of posts, personal information and contact details), like many others, was being submitted to the High Court as part of the legal process.
In a judgement that could have serious consequences for people’s mobilization against corporations and large institutions, a city civil court in Chennai on August 18 ordered a trade union and its three office bearers to pay damages of Rs 1 lakh to the State Bank of India for circulating handbills claiming “loot of the public” by the bank during an agitation in 2006.
Politicians take offence
Former chief minister of Mizoram and president of the Mizo National Front (MNF) Zoramthanga, on May 18 filed a criminal complaint against the editor, publisher and staff of the Congress Thlifim for “smearing” his name. The mouthpiece of the Congress Party in power in the state. In its March issue, the Congress Thlifim had alleged that Zoramthanga had ordered the assassination of a priest in 2007 when he was chief minister.
That politicians can use the defamation law to harass the media is evident in the case filed in 2011 by Ajit Kumar Tokas, of the BJP against Rajdeep Sardesai, then heading IBN18 which had aired a sting conducted by Cobrapost exposing illegal construction in a ward in which Tokas was then councillor. While a magistrate’s court discharged Sardesai from the case in 2013 on grounds that no offence was made out against, him, the sessions court reinstated the case, forcing Sardesai to approach the High Court for relief.
The BJP and its supporters were up in arms over criticism from any quarter. On May 9, Vikas Pandey, a BJP “volunteer” filed a police complaint against Dhruv Rathee, the young YouTube sensation with more than 4.5 lakh followers, for spreading “fake news” about the prime minister. Rathee, who specializes in busting fake news and propaganda, responded with a video rebutting the police complaint.
There were some positive developments however, with the Madras High Court on July 3 quashing the criminal defamation case pending in a lower court against PMK leader S Ramadoss who had allegedly made defamatory comments during a PMK-organized meeting in Ariyalur in 2013 against former chief minister Jayalalitha. pending in a lower court.
Likewise, the courts on July 24 stepped in to direct Union Minister Babul Supriyo to retract malicious statements he had made against Abhishek Banerjee, a legislator from the TMC.
Media ethics and protecting reputation
On February 5, 2018, Manjit Singh GK, Chairman of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) released five video clippings allegedly showing Congress leader Jagdish Tytler admitting to killing a hundred Sikhs during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984. One ‘sting’ video carries the date stamp of 2011.12.08. On February 14, 2018, Tytler threatened to file a criminal defamation case against those behind the video, alleging that that the purported sting video linking him to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was ‘doctored’. A few days later, on February 8, Tytler filed a police complaint at the Kapashera police station and also in the cyber cell. On August 7, 2018, the police registered a case against DSGMC chief Manjit Singh over the ‘fake and doctored’ video that Tytler said was an attempt to tarnish his image and reputation. The person/s who shot and produced the video and sent it to Manjit Singh remain unidentified.
The beginning of the year, ironically, witnessed the start of the trial in a case of criminal defamation filed by a journalist against an academic. On January 31, 2018, Delhi-based academic and writer Madhu Kishwar was present over video conference at the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. Kishwar was sued by Shujaat Bukhari, Editor-in-Chief of Rising Kashmir after she tweeted in July 2016 and again in December 2016, that the paper was on the payroll of India’s enemies and that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had given it a script according which to function. On September 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of India had stayed a non-bailable warrant (NBW) against Kishwar, that had been issued by a lower court. With the petitioner, Shujaat Bukhari, having been tragically shot dead on June 14, 2018, the right to sue, as per current law, does not survive the complainant. The Rising Kashmir is itself fighting defamation cases over its reportage, a notable case having been filed by the Kehwah Group over a story carried in January 2018.
In another ironic twist of journalist versus the media, the Delhi High Court on May 24, 2018, dismissed a Rs 25 crore defamation suit against MJ Akbar in a case filed by NDTV over a story published in 2010 in the Sunday Guardian titled ‘NDTV-ICICI Loan Chicanery Saved Roys’. The Court also lambasted NDTV for “wasting” the court’s time for seven years.
Media ethics and responsibility came under the spotlight when on March 29, 2018, Fatima Najeeb, mother of Najeeb Ahmed, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student, who went missing in October 2016 filed a case of defamation against media houses who labelled her son an “ISIS sympathizer” on the basis of information received from “highly placed police sources”. A press conference later called by the police clarified that the police had received no information that could link Najeeb to the ISIS. The case was filed in the Delhi high court against Times of India, Times Now, Dilli Aajtak and the India Today group, demanding that all articles be retracted, an unconditional apology be tendered and damages worth Rs 2.2 crore be granted. The High Court issued notice in the case on September 19, 2018 and on October 10, the High Court directed all the defendants (media houses) to retract all articles and video clips from their websites and also remove YouTube links.
Arguments in the criminal defamation case against Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami began on March 13, 2018. The case, filed in May 2017 by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor on charges of continuously broadcasting unconfirmed and one-sided news reports against him while reporting news of the death of Sunanda Pushkar, Tharoor’s wife. The issue of journalistic standards and norms that were part of the arguments in court, must be seen in the light of the resignation in January 2018, of Republic TV staff member who revealed that he had been assigned to ‘harass’ Tharoor. Acknowledging that there was a prima facie case to initiate a trial against Goswami, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thiruvananthapuram, summoned Arnab Goswami to court on February 28, 2019. A civil defamation case by Tharoor claiming Rs.2 crores damages from Goswami is pending in the Delhi High Court.
Comedian Kapil Sharma, also aggrieved over “false, malicious, fraudulent articles” about him published on the digital platform SpotboyE by journalist Vicky Lalwani of 9X Media Ltd, issued a legal notice on May 7, 2018, demanding a public apology and damages to the tune of Rs 100 crore.
Besides journalists, filmmakers too came in for their share of defamation cases. On February 6, 2018, a defamation case was filed against the makers of the film ‘Newton’ by Tamal Sanyal, a sub-Inspector of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who claimed that the film portrayed the CRPF in bad light. The civil and criminal complaint was filed against producer Manish Mundra, and Shiladitya Bora, CEO of Drishyam Films, and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), for lowering “…the image and reputation of the CRPF, its members and their families, in the eyes of their friends and relatives and the public at large”. The complainant demanded that they tender an unconditional public apology and compensate the complainant. A Delhi court on October 13, 2018 recorded a partial statement of the complainant and fixed the next date of hearing for examination of witnesses for January 4, 2019.
Following the release of the blockbuster Kaala, superstar Rajnikanth faced a defamation suit of Rs 101 crore filed Jawahar Nadar, son of the ‘godfather’ of Dharavi, Thiraviam Nadar, whose reputation said Nadar, was damaged by the portrayal in the film.
Significantly, the threat of criminal defamation was used as an attempt to intimidate and silence allegations of sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement, calling out sexual harassment in the media. On October 15, 2018, journalist-turned-politician M.J. Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, the first woman journalist to publicly accuse him of predatory behaviour amounting to sexual harassment. Amid revelations of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry in Mumbai, Ramani named Akbar in a Twitter post on October 8, 2018, confirming that the unnamed person referred to as “Male Boss’ in her October 2017 article in Vogue while describing her job interview in a south Mumbai hotel in 1994, was indeed MJ Akbar.
MJ Akbar filed a criminal defamation suit in the Patiala House court in New Delhi, seeking relief under IPC Sections 499 and 500. The complaint listed instances of the alleged defamatory statements made by Ramani being circulated through print and electronic media, as well as on Twitter. Ramani, in a statement shared on her Twitter account, said that she was ready to fight allegations of defamation against her. In a move that boosted the morale of women journalists speaking out against sexual harassment, two days after Akbar termed Ramani’s allegations as “lies” and filed a civil defamation suit against her, as many as 19 former and current employees of The Asian Age (where Akbar was editor), spoke out against Akbar, supporting Ramani’s allegations. With intensifying public pressure, MJ Akbar stepped down from his Ministerial berth. The case is pending in the court.
The dilemmas and legal labyrinths around reporting of jub judice cases continues, more complicated by allegations of sexual harassment being made public, with names and photographs. On October 11, 2018, the Delhi High Court restrained The Quint from reporting about a specific case of sexual harassment, and the article was taken down pending final disposal of the matter. In anticipation of defamation cases and legal notices against women who speak out, a list of lawyers who volunteered pro bono services on social media was quickly put together on order to counter the intimidatory effect of defamation cases.
Questions of media ethics, due diligence and accuracy are integral to a credible media, and departures from professional guidelines and good sense must always be called out and rectified. Self-regulation in the shape of Readers’ Editors, Ombudspersons and professional councils must be strengthened in order to shore up the crumbling credibility of the mainstream media. However, there is no doubt that Sections 499 and 500 IPC do not constitute a “reasonable restriction” on free speech because, truth is not a defence, unless the statement was made “for the public good” – a category that is left to the courts to interpret. The threat of arrest and imprisonment, the requirement to be present in courts in various parts of the country where the cases are filed can pose prolonged harassment, since the case (or multiple cases) can be filed anywhere in India, and not only where the allegedly defamatory speech was made. Given that a civil remedy exists for defamation, an aggrieved individual has recourse to law in case of defamation or damage to one’s reputation. More than a century and a half after it was enacted during colonial rule in 1860, the over broad provision of criminal defamation should have no place in a democracy, and the arbitrary use of SLAPPs to silence inquiry must also come under scrutiny.
Contempt of Court
There were nine free speech-related contempt of court cases in a year in which the judiciary has been under the most intense scrutiny and began with the historic press conference by four senior-most judges. Of these, one ended in a conviction and four were dropped. Three cases are still on-going, including against Advocate Prashant Bhushan and news channels, Aaj Tak and Times Now for allegedly making reckless imputations against Supreme Court judges and the judiciary in the wake of the Judge Loya death case, Congress spokesperson Divya Spandana and S Gurumurthy, co-convener of Swadeshi Jagran Manch and part-time director of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for his controversial comments against Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court.
MD Rajanna, an activist from Karnataka agitating over the Cauvery river water dispute was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Karnataka High Court while a case against former RJD leader Bhola Yadav for allegedly making derogatory comments against the judiciary in the fodder scam case verdict was dropped and he was ordered by the Jharkhand High Court to deposit Rs 2.5 lakh towards Kerala flood relief in lieu of a conviction. Three other contempt cases were dropped when political party leaders of the AIADMK and the BJP tendered unconditional apologies in separate cases.
The year ended with the summoning of Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim by Justice SR Sen of the Meghalaya High Court on contempt charges for an article published in the newspaper entitled ‘When judges judge for themselves’ (Dec 10, 2018). The article was about provisions for perks and facilities for retired judges and their families. Mukhim was reportedly asked by Justice Sen about her ‘qualification’ to write about judges.
|Alleged Perpetrators/ Complainants/ Official Agencies||Ongoing Contempt cases||Contempt orders||Cases dropped|
|Courts (suo moto cases)||1||2||2|
|Political party leaders||1||1|
Table 5: Break-up of Contempt cases
Of the four freedom of expression-related sedition cases, two were related to social media posts. In February, Madhya Pradesh resident 21-year-old youth Junaid Khan was arrested for being administrator of a WhatsApp group in which allegedly objectionable posts had been made. He spent five months in jail. Junaid Khan became an administrator of the WhatsApp group by default (when the original administrator quit the group). He was arrested from his residence in Talen town in Madhya Pradesh’s Rajgarh district in February and spent five months in jail. Police said another member posted some objectionable content on the group. However, this member, along with the group admin, quit the group after complaints on the posts leaving Junaid as administrator. In the other case, Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla was charged with sedition for sharing and ‘liking’ on Facebook a cartoon about the state of the country in the wake of the Judge Loya case but managed to secure anticipatory bail from the Chhattisgarh High Court.
In a fresh development in the controversial JNU students’ sedition case, the special cell of Delhi police has filed a draft charge-sheet against eleven persons, including ten students and a doctor. JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya are named as the main accused in the case, the FIR in which was lodged in 2016.
Privacy and Surveillance
Privacy related issues continued to crop up a year after the Supreme Court judgement upheld privacy as a fundamental right. The Delhi High Court took a stern view of privacy violations of the Kathua rape victim’s identity by the media and prohibited any disclosure of the name or use of the minor’s face in news reports. The High Court directed 12 media houses to pay Rs 10 lakh each as compensation for revealing the identity of the victim. But media disclosure of dangerous privacy violations, as in The Tribune’s disclosure of the sale of Aadhar-related data resulted in a case filed against the reporter Rachna Khaira and the newspaper by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
The ongoing challenge to protect privacy continued with reports of the compromising of data of scores of Indians when data-mining company Cambridge Analytica accessed Facebook accounts and sold data available with the social media network. The data breach directly affected 5.6 Lakh Indian users.
The State’s manifold attempts to conduct surveillance of citizens continued, whether it was the I & B Ministry’s proposal to install chips in television set-top boxes to collect data on the channels viewers watched, the Petroleum ministry and oil companies’ demand that petrol dealers collect sensitive personal information like caste, religion and constituency of over ten lakh petrol pump employees, the plans to install CCTVs in private buildings or the Social Media Communications Hub, tenders for which were withdrawn following protests and a petition by Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra challenging it in the Supreme Court.
When this failed, the government went a step further. Making use of powers already vested in it by the amended Information Technology Act, 2000, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order on December 20, 2018, to allow ten agencies to monitor, intercept and decrypt information stored on any computer. The ten agencies include the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (For service areas of Jammu & Kashmir, North-East and Assam only) and Commissioner of Police, Delhi. Those who fail to extend technical facilities to these agencies will face a seven-year imprisonment.
The order was issued under Sec 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedures and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009.
Already, with the Indian government’s extensive blocking of websites and user accounts or pages on social media, its powers to watch, censor and silence online content is almost complete.
Government Control, Policy and Regulation
The year has been marked by several attempts –covert and overt– by both the NDA-led Union government and several state governments to keep the media in check. The more overt attempts drew swift opprobrium and even a change in the controversial head of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (MIB) Smriti Irani, via a reshuffle in May.
The most ominous was the proposed Social Media Communications Hub (SMCH) to monitor all social media. Tenders were called for setting up the hub but, after a petition by TMC MP Mahua Moitra challenged it in the Supreme Court, the Union government said it would withdraw the circular calling for an expression of interest and review the policy.
The Ministry of I&B took on the role of super-regulator and began the year by flexing its muscles against online media. A committee comprising mostly bureaucrats was set up in April to regulate online media content. After strong apprehensions were voiced and more than 100 journalists and senior editors signed a statement opposing it, there were reports that the committee was quietly merged with the committee on national investment in critical national infrastructure and digital broadcasting under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY).
Government interest in monitoring and blocking accounts on social media increased considerably. Facebook’s transparency report said that India was the country with the second highest number of requests, after the US, seeking data of users from Facebook. The Indian government’s requests rose sharply in 2018 as compared to the previous year. In just the first half of the year, Facebook received 16,580 data requests from the government, as compared to 22,024 requests in 2017. According to reports, 23,047 user account information was also requested during this period. Facebook complied with the government and provided data in 53 per cent of the cases.
Twitter’s transparency report for the first half of 2018 was also grim, with the government asking for information on 355 accounts, though the company complied with only 11 per cent of the requests and actually removed only about five per cent of accounts from the 246 requests made by the Indian government.
Besides taking down individual accounts, the central government blocked 2,388 websites for ‘objectionable content’ in 2018, nearly double the 1,329 websites it blocked in 2017, according to a reply given by Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology S. S. Ahluwalia to a parliamentary question by BJP MP Janardhan Singh Sigriwal.
As in the past year, media access to the government was restricted only to those favourable to it. Criticism against the Prime Minister for failing to hold a single press conference continued in the fourth year of his tenure, as he gave email interviews to print media outlets and television interviews to select channels, and these too without follow up questions.
Other serious free speech issues including overt pressure on owners and senior editors. In Anand Bazaar Patrika (ABP), senior anchors abruptly quit citing pressure over special programmes and the editor-in-chief of The Tribune quit after the paper’s story on the sale of Aadhar data resulted in the filing of an FIR by the UIDAI. An RTI query revealed that there was much more government control over advertising, with Indian Express losing out from DAVP advertising, despite the massive Rs 4,343 crore that the Narendra Modi government spent on publicity since it came to power in May 2014.
Government attempts to control public broadcasting continued this year. However, the Prasar Bharati rejected the MIB proposal to appoint a serving IAS officer to its board, and hire two journalists to head the news service units of Doordarshan and All India Radio. The public broadcaster had earlier said that the ministry had withheld funds as payback for disputes between the two.
But the Union government was not the only one seeking to regulate the media. Successive state governments, including those of Telangana, West Bengal, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab tried to bring in a slew of regulations and legislations covering entry into state assemblies, defamation, social media, fake news and blasphemy.
However, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan did state that media freedom would be protected but the circular regulating media access was not withdrawn. On its part, the West Bengal government rejected a draconian recommendation by a panel set up by its higher education department to bar teachers from talking to the media or express their views on public policy.
|Sr No.||Regulatory authority||Regulation (proposed; in force)|
|1||Union government (MIB)||Proposal to appoint a serving IAS officer to Prasar Bharati board, and hire two journalists to head the news service units of Doordarshan and All India Radio|
|2||Union government (MIB)||Committee to regulate online content, including social media and websites|
|3||Union government (Home ministry)||Law Commission to prepare a draft law for online ’hate speech’|
|4||Telangana govt||Proposed amendments to Section 506 and 507 of the IPC, where those accused of using ‘harsh words’ against a person or institution can be arrested without court permission|
|5||Madhya Pradesh||The Madhya Pradesh Jan Suraksha Evam Sanraksha 2018 Bill giving magisterial power to the police department. Provisions include giving police power to keep citizens locked inside their houses, full control on social media, inspection of the buildings or homes without any search warrant and powers to police constables to arrest.|
|6||Goa||Guidelines to restrict media access to the legislative assembly|
|7||West Bengal||Appoint nodal officer in each district to check, along with the police, if any TV programme can upset communal harmony|
|8||West Bengal||A new law to tackle ‘fake news’ and posts on social media|
|9||Punjab||Proposal to amend existing laws and insert Article 295 AA, to make sacrilege against religious books a major offence or ‘Blasphemy’. As per the new proposed amendment bill, life imprisonment will be awarded to whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to holy books such as the Guru Granth Sahib, the Bhagwad Gita, the Quran and the Bible.|
|10||Kerala||Home department circular barring mediapersons from approaching the chief minister, other ministers and higher officials except through the State’s information and public relations department of the state. As per the circular issued by Home Secretary Subrata Biswas, journalists with entry passes will be allowed inside any section of the department, and for those who do not have an entry pass or a state accreditation, the secretariat will only be accessible during the time allotted for visitors.|
Table 6: Govt regulations (proposed and in force)
As more and more cases relating to freedom of expression came knocking at the doors of the judiciary, relief came slowly and unevenly. In January, the Bombay High Court scrapped a trial court order restraining the media from reporting on proceedings in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleged fake encounter case. In her order, Justice Revati Mohite-Dere said that the public has the right to know and freedom of the press is intrinsic to freedom of expression. Other notable cases in favour of freedom of expression included the order of a Patiala court rejecting a plea by former TERI chief RK Pachauri to restrain the media from reporting the sexual harassment case against him; the Supreme Court’s quashing of an FIR against actress and internet sensation Priya Prakash Varrier; the dismissal of a petition seeking a ban on Malayalam book Meesha and the permission for live streaming of hearings of court cases.
But the balance could also tilt, and a perfect illustration was the Madras High Court order to burn almost 2000 books.
The case pertained to books authored by octogenarian writer Nedumaran, who was also charged with sedition. Some of the books were seized in 1993 and later again in 2002. In 2005, Nedumaran was acquitted but the seized books were not returned. He filed a separate case asking for return of the books. After 12 years, the Madras High Court held that the books contained seditious material and ordered them to be destroyed.
|Sr No.||Authority||Orders, Regulations, Policies|
|1||Bombay High Court||Scrapped trial court order restraining media from reporting proceedings in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleged fake encounter case|
|2||Patiala House Court, Delhi||Rejected plea to restrain news networks from covering the case regarding alleged sexual harassment by former TERI chief RK Pachauri|
|3||Law Commission of India||No changes to the contempt of court law, as it would ‘lessen the respect’ of the Indian judicial system.|
|4||Delhi High Court||A Rs 10 lakh penalty on each media house that revealed the identity of the Kathua rape-murder case|
|5||Supreme Court of India||Admitted plea by BJP spokesperson for guidelines on duty of print and electronic media when reporting orders, judgements and proceedings of the court|
|6||Delhi High Court||Notice to S Gurumurthy, director, RBI, also editor of Tamil magazine Thuglak, for his tweets asking whether Justice Muralidhar had been a junior to Karti Chidambaram’s father Senior Advocate and Congress politician P Chidambaram|
|7||Additional District Judge, Delhi||Media restrained from reporting on the FIR filed against former Orissa High Court Judge IM Quddusi, an accused in the medical college bribery case.|
|8||Delhi High Court||Justice RK Gauba of the Delhi High Court restored an injunction on the publication and sale of Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev published by Juggernaut Books on May 10, 2018; In April, the Karkardooma District Courts, Delhi had lifted a restraint on the publisher, granted ex parte in 2017.|
|9||Supreme Court of India||Plea on live streaming of court proceedings accepted. Supreme Court directed the Centre to frame rules, form part of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and could start on an experimental basis in one court|
|10||Bombay High Court||A police manual is a public document. A chief information commissioner’s order that it be uploaded on the state police website was upheld|
|11||Madras High Court||Permanent restrain on the Kumudam group of publications, more particularly the Kumudam magazine, from writing/publishing anything touching upon the private life of Kanimozhi, MP.|
|12||Supreme Court of India||FIR registered in Telangana against actress and internet sensation Priya Prakash Varrier, in connection with the ‘wink song’ in Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love quashed.|
|13||Supreme Court of India||Petition seeking a ban on Malayalam book ‘Meesha’ for its alleged objectionable portrayal of women and temple priests dismissed|
|14||Delhi High Court||Order restraining web portal Cobrapost from making public its documentary, which alleged that various media houses have indulged in unethical practices like paid news, set aside|
|15||Odisha district court, Odisha High Court and Supreme Court||Journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra granted bail on Dec 4, after being arrested on Oct 23 for allegedly making derogatory comments on the culture of Odisha. He was repeatedly denied bail but he apologised in front of the Odisha assembly and the Odisha government said it had ‘pardoned’ him and would not grant the required permissions to prosecute him in the cases against him.|
|16||Uttarakhand High Court||A bench of the court issued directives seeking a ban on pornography, following the gang-rape of a student by other students reportedly after watching videos pornographic in nature|
|17||Delhi High Court||Petition by NGO Justice for Rights Foundation admitted seeking a complete ban on ‘vulgar’ content shown by leading on-demand entertainment apps Netflix, Amazon Prime and others.|
|18||Madras High Court||Defamation case against India Today Tamil weekly quashed. It was filed by the State in 2012 at the instance of then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa (now deceased), for having carried an article insinuating that AIADMK party senior KA Sengottaiyan was side-lined at the instance of her confidante VK Sasikala.|
|19||Madras High Court||Order to burn 2,000 copies of a book allegedly supporting the banned Sri Lankan Tamil militant organization LTTE.|
|20||Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court||FIR filed against five people for allegedly having hurt sentiments of those following the Hindu religion set aside. A petition was filed by Ashok Deshmukh and four of his Facebook friends, who were booked for “insulting Hindu religion” by comparing Lord Parshuram with the famous character ‘Parshya’ of Marathi blockbuster, Sairat.|
|21||Magistrate court, Delhi||Delhi Police directed to register an FIR against Aam Aadmi Party leader Ashutosh for allegedly making “vulgar” statements against Mahatma Gandhi and former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jawaharlal Nehru in a blog in 2016.|
|22||Supreme Court of India||Directives to protect privacy and reputation of victims of rape crimes, including that ‘no person can print or publish in print, electronic, social media, etc. the name of the victim or even in a remote manner disclose any facts which can lead to the victim being identified and which should make her identity known to the public at large’.|
|23||Kerala High Court||Reinstatement of Prasad Pannian, suspended from his post of head of department at Central University of Kerala at Kasargod after he wrote a Facebook post in support of a Dalit research scholar who was arrested from the campus for breaking the glass pane of a fire alarm cabinet in the university hostel. The court said that the expression of a teacher’s opinion on social media “in regard to an action” cannot be considered criticism.|
Table 7: Significant cases relating to Freedom of Expression in 2018
The range of curbs on free speech, with unreasonable and often illegal clampdowns from various quarters – the State, both at the Centre and respective state governments; non-state actors and vigilante groups; corporations and industrialists, provides a glimpse of the challenges ahead as India heads into a national election that promises to be one of the most fiercely contested amid an increasingly polarized polity. Unrelenting State regulation and attempts to control dissent and diversity of opinion, necessitates a strong pushback from the media community, civil society and aware and vocal citizens. The resistance that is visible in small pockets across the country provides hope that critical voices will not only be heard, but also gain in volume.