The IPI global network today published an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing our concerns about the alarming deterioration of press freedom in India. We urge his government to take immediate and concrete action to protect freedom of expression and media freedom and to ensure that the Indian public can exercise their fundamental right to receive diverse, independent news and information. 

The letter highlights some of the key challenges journalists in India face in being able to carry out their work freely and safely, based on more than a year of close monitoring by IPI as part of our ongoing work to support press freedom and independent journalism in the country and across South Asia. It also includes a series of concrete recommendations for improving the environment for press freedom in India and for ensuring the public has access to diverse, independent news and information. 

The letter can be read in full below or downloaded here.

31 May 2023

Dear Honorable Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India,

As the global network of editors and journalists dedicated to promoting media freedom and independent journalism, the International Press Institute (IPI) is extremely concerned about the declining state of press freedom in India. 

We call on your government to respect freedom of the press and to take immediate and concrete action to ensure that the citizens of India can exercise their fundamental right to receive diverse, independent news and information, in accordance with the Indian Constitution and international law.  

As the largest democracy in the world, India has a leading role to play as a model for other states in the region and globally. The ability of journalists to report on matters of public interest is an essential pillar of democracy and ensures that the public can hold the government account. States are responsible for ensuring that journalists can work freely and safely and for ensuring the free flow of ideas and information so that all citizens can access and share pluralistic and independent information. 

IPI has been closely monitoring the environment for press freedom in India, as we seek to support independent journalism in the country and across South Asia. Our monitoring shows that press freedom has rapidly deteriorated since your government came into power in 2014, as journalists routinely face attacks and justicial harassment through the use of repressive laws, often targeting the Muslim minority. 

IPI has documented at least 200 press freedom threats or violations over the past year alone, which includes both legal and physical attacks against journalists, amid shrinking space for government criticism and the free flow of information and ideas. Our monitoring also shows that a majority of these incidents and violations were committed by state authorities, which include law enforcement and judicial authorities, precisely the public officials and institutions that are responsible for safeguarding fundamental human rights and the rule of law. 

We highlight: 

  • The government’s ordering of internet and mobile service shutdowns, especially in the Indian-administered region of Jammu and Kashmir. According to digital rights group Access Now, India shut down the internet at least 84 times in 2022, the highest number of any country in the world for the fifth year in a row. A vast majority of these shutdowns have been ordered in Jammu and Kashmir. 
  • The alarming increase in “lawfare,” or the weaponization of law, by public authorities to punish and censor critical journalists. We are especially concerned by your government’s use of the criminal code, the IT Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the Public Safety Act, as well as other legal and administrative means to crack down on journalists who report critically on the Modi government or other elected officials or cover stories of corruption and human rights abuses.
  • The targeted harassment and online abuse of individual journalists, including journalist Rana Ayyub, an outspoken critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, who has faced relentless harassment and online abuse, including rape and death threats, by Hindu right-wing groups and online troll armies for years.
  • The systematic dismantling of independent media in Jammu and Kashmir, including through arbitrary arrests and targeting of individual journalists. The environment for independent journalists in the region has sharply declined since your government in August 2019 repealed Article 370 and 35a of the Indian Constitution, which gave Jammu and Kashmir significant autonomy. Since then, the region’s independent journalists and media outlets have come under intense pressure, facing arbitrary detention and arrest as well as internet shutdowns, which have prevented them from communicating and publishing their work. Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah has faced multiple arrests under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is indicative of a broader pattern of legal harassment and intimidation of independent journalists in the region.
  • Increasing efforts to censor online spaces for political ends and to limit forums for public debate. We are especially concerned by your government’s recent decision to pass the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules 2023, which will restrict access to critical news and information. 
  • Physical attacks against journalists, often with impunity. Over the past year, at least 2 journalists have been killed in connection with their work, and there were at least 53 documented cases of physical, verbal, or online attacks against journalists. In multiple cases, journalists were attacked by police while reporting on local news.  

The right to free speech and freedom of the press is guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India. Though these freedoms may be restricted to a “reasonable” extent on extremely limited grounds, the government has repeatedly and disproportionately restricted these rights with a myriad of draconian criminal laws aimed at silencing journalists and weakening independent media.

We emphasize that under international law states have a positive obligation to protect the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and information, which includes the right of journalists to work freely, safely, and independently. Any interference with the right to freedom of expression should be prescribed by law and must be necessary, legitimate, and for a narrowly defined purpose. 

Moreover, under international law and other agreements, states must investigate attacks on journalists promptly, thoroughly, and independently, and prosecute those responsible. Our work and research has shown that failure by states to investigate such crimes often leads to increased violence.

We therefore call on your government to: 

  1. #KeepItOn: Refrain from ordering network shutdowns and lift all existing orders requiring ISPs to block or disrupt access to the internet or mobile communications, platforms, and services. Access to the internet is regarded as a human right. Any restrictions to this right can only be justified in the narrowest of circumstances and must be proportionate to achieve the desired aim. The UN and human rights experts have found that the intentional disruption of internet access and digital communications in almost no circumstances meets this proportionality test. This includes intentional network shutdowns or disruptions during times of political activity or protest.
  2. Cease “lawfare” against the press, and targeted attacks against individual journalists who are critical of government policies. Democratic governments must be able to withstand public scrutiny and criticism – this is the hallmark of a healthy checks-and-balances system that makes democracies stronger. Your government must cease its continued legal harassment of journalist Rana Ayyub, who faces numerous baseless charges for her critical views on the Modi government, as well as other journalists across India who have faced repeated criminal charges. 
  3. Cease targeted attacks and harassment of independent journalists and media in Jammu and Kashmir.
  4. Conduct transparent and thorough human rights risk assessments on any new and existing legislation that may affect press freedom, in consultation with domestic and international stakeholders to ensure alignment with domestic and international laws protecting press freedom. The government must ensure that all policies and practices affecting the media align with international human rights and freedom of expression principles and standards, and do not violate or restrict the Indian public’s right to diverse, independent information. We strongly urge your government to work in consultation with civil society and human rights experts to review the risks of the proposed amendment to the Federal Investigation Agency Act, 1974, and the government’s proposed Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023 to the right of freedom of expression.
  5. Repeal all domestic legislation or legal provisions in existing laws that contravene domestic and international protections for media freedom and the right to information. 
  6. Commit to protecting journalists’ safety and ensure all crimes against journalists and media workers are investigated transparently and independently, in line with international obligations and standards. The government should also take concrete steps to improve accountability for all reported cases of violence or intimidation of the press and human rights defenders, including by establishing clear and transparent procedures and mechanisms for investigating all reported attacks.

The need for robust, public-interest journalism in India and around the world has never been greater. IPI stands ready to discuss our concerns as well as our recommendations for strengthening the environment for media freedom in India and for ensuring that independent journalism can fulfill its critical public function of helping foster a more democratic, informed, and equitable society.