On the morning of 31 October 2020, a virtual event launched Wan-Ifra’s report on the Media Laws in India. Over two dozen webinar participants witnessed and interacted with a panel of senior and legal journalists and lawyers on the internet. The report, worked on by the World editors forum South Asia chapter of Wan-Ifra, is available in a hard copy version from Wan-Ifra, and is to be yet distributed.
The cosmopolitan panel consisted of Mukund Padmanaban, senior journalist, Krishnadas Rajagopal, legal correspondent of The Hindu, Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star in Bangladesh, and Geeta Ramaseshan, a senior lawyer. Magdoom Mohamed, head of Wan-Ifra India, opened the webinar, and Shilpa Elizabeth moderated the proceedings, including the audience’s questions.
Padmanabhan initiated the discussion asking how ‘Media Law’ should be defined and outlined questions faced daily by journalists and editors, whether of the law or the process of its application. “Does the sedition law just need to go?” he asked while suggesting that the discussion take up several relevant topics, including contempt of court and civil defamation versus criminal defamation.
Panelists pointed out that in many areas, the application of the law to media is problematic. “Sedition is not a stand-alone charge nowadays,” they said, “It is often applied with other charges such as outraging religious feelings.”
Omnibus charges are often applied by the police and lower courts and amplified by social and electronic media to create wholesale public trials. In many cases, these charges are dismissed by the higher courts. However, as Rajagopal pointed out, even the higher courts dismiss bail applications by journalists by merely passing the buck to other courts that may take as long as six months to hear the application. The intimidation culture was touched on, although the panelists were respectful, and none used the word’ impunity.’
Mahfouz Anam brought up the new threat to the media because of cyber laws and regulations purportedly meant to safeguard the digital space. He referred to the Bangladesh digital security act passed two years ago to restrain using the internet to commit violence, financial crime, and hate speech. He said, “In the past two years, more journalists have been arrested under this act than any other category.”
Anam referred to the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances of the executive, legislative and legal branches of government under which liberal democracies function. He pointed out that the balance is being eroded by the executive branch in recent years, gathering more power to itself, everywhere. “The cyber laws are the new frontier,” he said, “through which the governments are coming through the doors of the news media.”
An exciting discussion touching many of the concerns of the media was more remarkable because it was taking place at all. it was a hopeful introduction to the as-yet undistributed and unread report. It pointed to ongoing activity, including the training on media law in India being organized for journalists in mid-November. An opportunity for all journalists and others to invest in the freedom of expression and the practical evolution of our democracy.