World Press Freedom Day: Systemic silencing

Journalists feel the heat for being critical of the dominant ideology in India

kappan-fahad-shah-patricia-mukhim (Clockwise from top) Siddique Kappan, Fahad Shah and Patricia Mukhim

On the evening of August 8, 2020, ten women from Subhash Mohalla in North East Delhi proceeded to the Bhajanpura police station to make the police register a first information report on a complaint they had made two days before. The complaint was that some men had tried to foment communal tension in their locality. The complainants said the men had abused Muslims, tied saffron flags near a mosque and burst crackers in celebration of a ceremony for the construction of a temple at faraway Ayodhya on August 5.

In a cross-border collaboration on World Press Freedom Day in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dawn of Pakistan, The Daily Star of Bangladesh, myRepublica of Nepal and THE WEEK magazine of India share stories of repression, termination and desolation

Two of the women—Shaheen Khan and Shanno, an eyewitness in a 2020 Delhi riots case—and Shanno’s 16-year-old daughter went inside the police station to meet the officers. They later alleged that the officers manhandled and molested them. The officers denied the allegations. 

Two journalists, Shahid Tantray of Caravan magazine and freelancer Prabhjit Singh, visited the police station.  “We stayed there the whole night,” said Tantray. “We realised that something had happened to the girl—she was in a shock. In the morning we spoke to her and filed a story about the molestation and assault.” 

The story was published on August 10. The next day, the magazine sent a woman reporter along with Tantray and Singh to meet the women in their homes. They reached Subhash Mohalla around noon, crossing one of the two metal gates that had been installed at either end of Lane 2 after the communal riots of February 2020.

“We started our work by filming the saffron flags that had been tied in the area,” said Tantray. Soon a group of men surrounded them. “A man who identified himself as BJP general secretary asked us what we were filming. I told him that we were following up on the story about what had happened on August 5. ‘Nothing happened here,’ the man said.”  


The man demanded to see Tantray’s ID card. “When I showed him the card, he [uttered a communal slur],” said Tantray. “I told him that I was there as [a reporter] and not as a Muslim, and that I do not bring my religion into my profession.” A mob was building up and the air grew tense. Sensing trouble, Tantray asked the woman reporter to leave the lane and wait outside the gates.

“I do not know what instigated the man, but he started abusing me,” said Tantray. Singh’s efforts to calm the mob proved futile, as did the efforts of two policemen who arrived on the scene half an hour later. The mob demanded that the female journalist be called back. 

"We refused,” said Tantray. “Then they asked us to delete the footage from our camera. After I deleted the footage, they demanded the camera. I refused. By then several women, too, had joined the mob. One of them [pulled at] the camera pouch slung around my neck and tried to strangle me. They pushed and abused me, and punched me on my shoulders and back. It went on for one and a half hours.” 

Around 4pm, more policemen arrived and they rescued Tantray and Singh. As the woman reporter tried to follow them to the police station, half a dozen men and women chased her. She ran, but stumbled and fell and was caught.  “They started hitting me on my head, arms, chest and hips,” she wrote in her complaint to the police later. She ran to a policeman, who she said tried to “trivialise” the whole incident, but another policeman took her to the station. Though an FIR was registered, no arrests have been made, yet.

Tantray said it was dangerous for press freedom that mobs aligned to a certain ideology enjoyed impunity everywhere in India. “Whenever I go for reporting, I do not disclose my identity—as a Muslim and as a Kashmiri,” he said. “Had [the Subhash Mohalla mob] known that I was a Kashmiri, I would have been lynched!”

If Tantray was assaulted by non-state actors, Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla, has encountered intimidation and harassment by the state machinery. He had gone to Punjab, along with a colleague, to write about a farmers' protest against the Central government. While returning on October 4, 2020, they were questioned at a security checkpoint at the Jawahar Tunnel on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.

A security officer, wearing a black T-shirt with “Commando” written on it, asked them to show their ID cards. On seeing Shah’s name, he went to a senior officer. “I heard him saying ‘Sir, this is the person’, pointing at my ID card,” said Shah. Immediately a dozen policemen encircled the duo, pointing assault rifles at them. They were made to get out of the car and hand over their phones. A police officer asked Shah to unlock his phone. 

“The officer dialled some numbers on it, using his phone as reference,” said Shah. “I asked the officer [why we were being detained,] but he did not respond.” After some time, the officer asked the duo to get into a police truck to go to the Qazigund police station. They refused to get into the truck, saying they would come by car. One of the policemen, Shah said, abused him and called him a “bastard”.  

A policeman then drove them in their car to the police station. The station house officer (SHO) appeared after about 45 minutes, asked them routine questions and told them to wait for a senior officer to come.

At around 8pm, Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammad Shafi arrived at the station. “After asking for some basic details, he inquired about our qualification, implying that we did not have the necessary qualification to do journalism,” said Shah. The officer asked about their reporting in Kashmir and referred specifically to a news story Shah had done on a shootout in Damhal-Hanji Pora in Kulgam in May 2020. According to Shah, the officer warned him and his colleague to report “cautiously” about matters related to “national security”.

The questioning continued for four hours, and finally they were released at 10pm, after they signed a statement that the car and phone were returned to them intact. “Our detention was illegal, and we believe that it is in line with how journalists are routinely harassed, summoned to police stations, treated like criminals and intimidated because we report facts…. Why are we being treated like this—harassed and intimidated? I am extremely worried about the safety of my colleagues and myself,” wrote Shah in his article ‘Journalism is not a Crime’ in The Kashmir Walla.  

Shah said free press was getting crushed everywhere in the world, except for a few western countries. In India, he said, censorship has been institutionalised with the new media policy in Kashmir and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, notified on February 25, under the Information and Technology Act, 2000.

Part III of the Rules permits the government to delete, modify and block content published by digital news media. The Editors Guild of India, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressed concern that the new rules “can fundamentally alter how news publishers operate over the Internet and undermine the freedom of the press in the country.”  

Dhanya Rajendran, editor-in-chief of news portal The News Minute, said that for the past few years, only digital media could do honest journalism in India. “This is mainly because of the nature of how it works—for the advertisement revenue and all, you do not have to depend on the government much,” she said. “The government has introduced the new media rules to target these digital media organisations.” 

She said there was an organised effort by different political outfits to target media organisations and journalists. “The BJP may be doing it in the most massive and organised way, but all the parties are doing it,” she said.

Rajendran said women journalists were at a greater risk than the men from online trolls and harassers. “A lot of women now know how to handle harassment,” she said. “But that does not make it any less of a problem. I think the first big step is for everyone to understand that online harassment is a real problem, especially when it is in an organised manner.” She, however, conceded that harassment of journalists and media organisations could happen in a more institutionalised manner, too—in the form of criminal suits or financial harassment by blocking revenues.

Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, said press freedom in India stood hugely diminished. “We are all self-censoring now. [journalists] are afraid; they may be booked for sedition; they may be booked for criminal defamation or all kinds of law,” she said. In July 2020, a criminal case was filed against her for a Facebook post condemning an attack on five non-tribal youth in Meghalaya’s Lawsohtun village. In the post, Mukhim had commented that Meghalaya was a failed state because perpetrators of attacks on non-tribal people since 1979 had never been arrested. 

In November, the Meghalaya High Court declined to quash the criminal charges against Mukhim. It observed that she “sought to create a divide” between the tribal and non-tribal people in the state. However, in March 2021, the Supreme Court quashed the case against her. It said, “free speech of the citizens of this country cannot be stifled by implicating them in criminal cases unless such speech tends to affect public order”. 

Mukhim was acquitted, but she rues that she has had to go through a very tiring legal exercise. “Once you are booked, it is such a serious process,” she said. “Your family also will go through all the trauma that you go through.”  

Raihana Siddique, wife of Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan, can relate to that. Kappan was arrested at Mathura by the Uttar Pradesh Police in October 2020, while on his way to Hathras to report on the gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl, which had triggered nationwide outrage. The journalist was booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In the 5,000-page charge sheet, the police accuse him of criminal conspiracy to create unrest in Hathras. 

The charge sheet says Kappan was involved in seeking foreign funds to incite violence in Hathras. Along with Rauf Sherif—a member of the Popular Front of India—he has been accused of receiving Rs80 lakh from countries in the Persian Gulf.

"He was working for Rs25,000 a month at the Malayalam news portal Azhimukham,” said Raihana. “He has two ATM cards. Both of them are with the police. Let them check if he had received a single penny in his account other than his salary.” Raihana is a homemaker. The couple has three children, with the eldest studying in class 12. 

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists is supporting her fight. In an affidavit submitted in the Supreme Court in December 2020, the union stated that Kappan was “beaten with lathi and slapped” and was “mentally tortured” in the Mathura jail. On April 22, the union requested the court to transfer him to All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, citing his ill health". It stated that Kappan had "collapsed in the bathroom” and had tested positive for Covid-19. He is in a medical college hospital in Mathura.

Raihana, however, said the media was largely silent about her husband’s plight. “Why is everyone silent? Why is everyone afraid?” she asked.

It is a question that should reverberate in media houses across the country.

Postscript: Kappan was shifted to AIIMS, Delhi, on April 30.

Nirmal Jovial is a journalist at THE WEEK magazine, India

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