Seven journalist and media associations met on 4 July 2022 at the Delhi Press Club to discuss the increasingly aggressive government attacks on press freedom in India. The Press Club of India, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Association, the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC), the Delhi Union of Journalists, the Digipub News India Foundation, and the Working News Cameramen’s Association together highlighted the recent arrest of Mohammed Zubair and said the government’s targeting of journalists endangers the future of the profession as a whole. The meeting also expressed concern at Kashmiri journalists “being systematically stopped from flying out of the country, the latest example being that of Pulitzer Prize winner Sanna Mattoo.”
The journalists and representatives of the media organizations took note of the recent ‘disconcerting events’ affecting the press including the arrest of journalists and raids by investigative agencies. The combined platform and the 70 or 80 journalists present at the meeting passed a resolution reminding the government of the G7 resolution on freedom of speech and thought which prime minister Narendra Modi signed in Germany last month. The targeting of journalists through cases and organizations through raids will have a ‘chilling effect’ on the media as a whole, the resolution noted.
Senior journalist and former editor of Business Standard, TN Ninan, spoke first, making three suggestions that he said would function as a roadmap to oppose the government’s ‘offensive’ against independent journalism. “Issuing statements after a meeting is no longer enough,” he said, “We must now think about what else we can do.”
He said the government was easily able to target journalists because the media is deeply divided. “We should now see if we can all at least agree on the basis of press freedom and get media organizations across the country to come together.”
His other suggestions were to organize legal aid for arrested journalists and to establish a panel of lawyers who could help journalists in all parts of the country. He suggested that this could be a collective or crowdfunded effort.
The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan, spoke about the targeting of Alt News, saying the fact-checking organization, “was turning out to be a major roadblock, an obstacle, in the government and the ruling party’s attempts to manipulate public opinion. We are in the middle of a full-blown attack on media freedom. These attacks will only escalate. There will be attempts to bring new laws and new rules to curtail media freedom,” he added.
Umakant Lakhera president of the Press Club of India said, “There is an attempt to radicalize a section of journalists, our own colleagues, to come after others. Fear is being instilled in reporters not to question the government. Journalists are doing the important job of getting information to the public, but are being projected as ‘dangerous’ to the society.”
Press Council of India member Jayashankar Gupta, also a representative of the Press Association, underlined the government’s dithering in renewing the press accreditation cards of journalists. Gupta said the government has forced several senior journalists to undergo a stringent screening process and barred journalists from entering parliament, even though Covid-19 guidelines have been eased.
The Indian Women’s Press Corps president Shobhna Jain spoke of the government’s delay in renewing the annual lease of the organization’s office in New Delhi, adding that the space to express media freedom for women journalists was at stake. “Because the narrative of some journalists is different (pro-government), the challenge today is to take everyone along and speak as one voice, as journalists. FIRs were filed against two of our members [Saba Naqvi and Navika Kumar] too,” she said.
Sandeep Shankar, representing the Working News Cameramen’s Association, said, “The attack on camerapersons since 2006,″ has reached the level where they are not even allowed in official functions.
For instance, when the NDA’s presidential nominee Draupadi Murmu was filing her papers, Shankar said, “Even after the Lok Sabha speaker said at a press conference that everyone including camerapersons will be allowed to capture that moment, they were not – except one private outfit (ANI).”
Reading out the resolution the organizers of the combined platform urged the government to restore access to government events to the media for coverage in the interest of a robust democracy. “The plethora of FIRs against many of our colleagues in the recent past and the ED (Enforcement Directorate) raids in media offices sends an ominous signal to the future of the profession as a whole. The recent arrest of [an] Alt News co-founder for a cognizable offense is a case in point.” Mohammed Zubair’s arrest is based on “exaggerated and trumped-up charges,” the resolution said.
“On the other hand, those who actually make hate speeches are moving around freely,” it added. “The ‘cherry-picking’ by law enforcement agencies has a chilling effect on the media as a whole,” it said. “We would use this opportunity to remind you that our government very rightly committed and affirmed at the recently held G-7 summit, ‘to protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief and promoting inter-faith dialogue.’ It is this principle spelt out in our Constitution as well that needs to be upheld and protected.”