Press freedom in India faces a rapid downward spiral as journalists are being targeted by the government in a bid to control the narrative in the country on the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Press Institute warned in a statement today.

The Indian government has resorted to various tactics to prevent independent media from reporting about the pandemic. In a blatant attempt to stifle press freedom, on March 31 the government unsuccessfully petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to bar the media from publishing information about COVID-19 that had not been cleared by the government. The court refused to intervene but directed the media to “refer to and publish” the official version of the developments.

“While India’s Supreme Court rightly declined to go along with a backhanded effort to control the narrative around COVID-19, officials at various levels of government have continued to target journalists, who have refused to bow to pressure”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Independent journalism is an essential partner in protecting public health. We urge the Indian authorities to ensure that all journalists are able to do their job of informing the public at this critical time.”

A day after the Supreme Court refused to allow the government to censor the media, police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which is governed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, filed a criminal case on April 1 against Siddharth Varadarajan, chief editor of  The Wire, a news website. The case was filed on the basis of a complaint filed by a lawyer alleging that an article published in The Wire intended to spread fake news against the chief minister of the state.    The article had mentioned that the state’s chief minister was planning to organize a religious festival during the lockdown, which had led to public anger.

The case sparked off protests by journalists, activists, writers, academics and many others. More than 200 journalists issued a statement on April 11 describing the case against Varadarajan as a “brazen attempt to muzzle the media”. This was followed by a statement on April 14 by some 3,500 jurists, academics, actors, artists and writers expressing shock at the action of the police.

On April 16, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting served a notice to a private television channel, Public TV, in Bangalore for airing a programme in which it was claimed that the government was planning to drop money from helicopters to the poor during the nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19. The channel said that the programme was a serious discussion on the concept of helicopter money and did not mention that the government would actually drop money from helicopters. “Helicopter money” is a term used in India to describe the quantitative easing policy, where more money is pumped into the market.

Legal cases were also brought against two journalists on the charge of spreading fake news. Pawan Choudhary, a journalist in the state of Bihar, was arrested by the police on the charge of spreading misinformation through his social media account. Another case was filed against a journalist in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh on similar charges.

Journalists had also become victims of police violence soon after the government imposed a lockdown on March 24.

Moreover, press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir continues to be under serious threat from the security forces and the regional administration since August, after the central government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had guaranteed the territory’s autonomy. Last month, IPI published a special report on press freedom in Jammu and Kashmir.

In an opinion piece on April 16, renowned economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen vehemently criticized the government saying: “As a proud Indian citizen, I have to hang my head in shame at the gross misbehaviour of our elected leaders – both for their attempt to curb media independence and for their efforts to violate freedom of speech in the country.”

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Ravi R. Prasad
Director of Advocacy