Press freedom in India is under attack, not only from Hindu and Muslim radicals, but also from government forces insistent that reporters don’t “offend” the very religious extremists that threaten them harm.
Committee to Protect Journalists India consultant Mannika Chopra reports, for example, that organizers of a documentary screening cancelled the event after protests from Hindu radicals. Chopra follows that account with a more detailed report on Muslim radicals apparently forcing the cancellation of a Salman Rushdie video link.
“Ignoring critics who accused the organizers of censorship, Sanjoy Roy, the festival’s producer, said the video interaction had to be cancelled to prevent violence by Muslims activists who, the local police said, had entered the crowded venue of the festival,” Chopra wrote.
“‘We have been pushed to the wall,” said an emotionally charged Roy,” Chopra said, quoting the producer.
“The controversy has turned on whether the threats to Rushdie were real,” Chopra said. “The writer initially decided not to attend the festival because he believed it would be unsafe, but came to believe that Rajasthan state police had fabricated the threats to keep him away. … Home Minister P. Chidambaram denied Rushdie’s claim at a press conference.”
India has seen an increase in violence against journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists now ranks India as the eighth most deadly country for journalists to work.
Iran is the most dangerous, currently holding 42 journalists in prison.
Even though Iran leads the pack, Reporters Without Borders U. S. spokesperson Daelphine Halgand says the article on India is on target.
“This perception is actually accurate,” Halgand said, and then pointed to several of the group’s press releases on conditions in India.
The government of India, the world’s largest democracy by population, however, isn’t standing up for freedom of the press in the face of these threats.
India Today reported that Markandey Katju, a former India Supreme Court justice and present chairman of the Press Council, said content on some web sites and other media needs to be “pre-screened.”
Citing Section 153-A of India’s Penal Code, Katju warned about offensive content.
“Such offensive material should be removed or filtered out from the social networking sites,” Katju said. “I have carefully examined and perused the contents, pictorial and others, regarding the objectionable material. … They show religious figures of certain communities in a highly offensive and even pornographic manner. Such material is bound to create religious hatred and lead to most undesirable consequences.
“The media and all persons should take care that the religious and other sentiments of any community should not be hurt,” Katju said. “No freedom is absolute. All freedoms are subject to reasonable restrictions.”
Largely Hindu, India has a history of persecuting those who insult Muslims. One such incident happened in 2009.
In that incident in Kolkata, India police arrested Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, editor and publisher of The Statesman newspaper for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings,” of Muslims.
Committee to Protect Journalists Asia analyst Bob Dietz says that Muslims may be partly responsible for attacks or press suppression, but the Muslims have help.
“The threats to journalists come from across the board. Marxist Naxalites, right-wing nationalists, traditional Gandhiists, tribal secessionists, local elites with overdeveloped senses of entitlement and organized crime syndicates in rural and urban areas are just a few of the groups that threaten the country’s traditional and digital media,” Dietz said. “To its great discredit, the government heavily suppresses reporting from Kashmir.
“The argument is that the country’s deeply entrenched ethnic and religious groups form a volatile mix that is still roiling even after decades of independence. Conservative critics find the freedom of public expression stemming from these media – the Internet, smart phones, social media platforms and the like – potentially threatening to the country’s traditional social order, much more so than mainstream media,” Dietz said.
Dietz adds that those traditional cultures are finding it extremely difficult to wrestle with the new media. Now the country is seeing an upsurge in attacks against the press.
Nonetheless, Dietz believes that Prime Minister Singh’s government will be able to adjust.
“In general, recent governments and the upper levels of the judiciary have been supportive of the broadened freedom of expression, and they understand the value of a free flow of information to a modern democracy and a market-oriented economy.,” Dietz sasid. “Those broad policies don’t look set to change any time soon.”
Perhaps ironically, the Times of India reported last week that Press Council Chairman Katju is denouncing those who have attacked press freedom.
“Since I feel that this freedom is under threat in many states, I intend to send fact-finding teams to some of the states from where we are getting a large number of such complaints,” Katju said.
Katju made the statements to the “Times of India” three weeks after saying that social media need to be prepared to remove content.
“I have seen the content on these sites and found them to be highly objectionable which may disrupt social harmony. If they fail to check these contents, then they should be ready to face legal action,” Katju said.
Dietz believes India has a difficult road ahead.
“The country has always had vigorous independently owned media, and over the years they have matured,” Dietz said. “Though far from perfect, national government policies generally support media freedom though, as I noted, digital and mobile media are bringing new challenges. There has been a high degree of impunity in bringing the killers of journalists to justice, but that pattern extends to the broader population as well.”