Is freedom of expression under threat in India? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW
The arrest of Muhammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking site Alt News, has been described as a new low for press freedom in India. The press and human rights groups see it as an attack on freedom of expression.
Zubair, was arrested last week following a complaint from a Twitter user about a satirical tweet posted over four years ago in 2018 allegedly mocking the Hindu god Hanuman.
Freedom of expression under threat
The tweet in question is a photo of the “Honeymoon Hotel” with its name changed to read “Hanuman Hotel”. Another Twitter user recently retweeted it calling it an affront to his religious feelings.
Zubair, who has been at the forefront of exposing misinformation and rising hate speech against minorities in the country, was arrested days after drawing international attention to controversial remarks by a ruling party official against the Prophet Muhammad.
The remarks made by former spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma, in a televised debate were widely condemned by Islamic nations and the United States.
“The arrest is extremely disturbing. Zubair has been active in the fight against disinformation over the past few years. This has made him a direct target for fake news generators,” said Sanjay Kapoor, general secretary of the Editors Guild. of India.
Kapoor pointed out that there are signs to suggest that this intolerance has grown in scale and intensity following the rise to power of the current right-wing government with its strict definition of nationalism.
Indie is committed to protecting freedom of expression
The arrest came as Prime Minister Narender Modi attended the G7 summit, where participating countries including India pledged to protect freedom of expression.
They signed the “Declaration on Resilient Democracies 2022” in which they pledged to “preserve the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors” and to “protect freedom of expression and opinion online and offline”.
Vrinda Grover, Zubair’s lawyer, said her client was targeted because he is a journalist who speaks “truth to power”.
“Many others have tweeted the same image. Why has there been no action against them? The only difference between these names and my client is his faith, name and profession,” Grover told DW.
Other global news organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, a global network of editors, journalists and media executives advocating for press freedom, have also condemned arrest, calling for Zubair’s release.
A shrinking space for dissent
Free speech activists and media commentators say the space for hard-line journalism, dissent and debate has been rapidly shrinking in India’s mainstream media.
In May, India’s press freedom ranking fell eight places, from 142 in 2021 to 150 this year, according to global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which released its Index. press freedom world 2022.
“Violence against journalists, politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in the world’s largest democracy, led since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the epitome of the Hindu nationalist right,” the report said.
The indicators used by RSF were based on a quantitative survey of press freedom violations and abuses against journalists and the media, as well as questionnaire responses from hundreds of press freedom experts.
Siddique Kappan, another Muslim journalist, has been in jail since October 2020, when Uttar Pradesh police arrested him on charges of terrorism, sedition and promoting inter-group enmity, among other charges.
At the time of his arrest, Kappan was en route from New Delhi to Hathras district in northern Uttar Pradesh to report on a case of the gang rape and murder of a young Dalit woman which sparked protests across the country.
New technologies and censorship
Journalists and online critics are also at risk of prosecution under the Information Technology Act and IT Rules 2021 after the government widened the scope under which companies could be criminally liable responsible for content critical of the authorities.
Some of the moves came amid growing tension between New Delhi and digital platforms like Twitter and Netflix over content regulation.
For example, Twitter has in the past suspended hundreds of accounts in India at the behest of the government, which was trying to contain large-scale farmer protests last year by cracking down on protesters’ online activity.
In addition, Indian authorities were implicated in the use of the Israeli-produced Pegasus spyware to target journalists last year.
Several media owners, close to the ruling party or wishing to advance their business interests, have begun to pressure journalists to limit reporting, change editorial direction or simply practice self-censorship.
“Press freedom is dismal because the owners of mainstream media do not attack the government over its press freedom record and rely heavily on government advertising,” said media critic Sevanti Ninan. , to DW.
Violence against journalists
Another report released by the Press Freedom Rights and Risks Analysis Group in February said at least six journalists were killed and 121 journalists and media houses were targeted in India last year.
At least 34 were attacked by non-state actors, mostly political party activists, mobsters and online trolls. Eight female journalists faced arrests, summonses, police complaints and sexual harassment, according to the report.
“There has been a blackout of all uncomfortable news. What is troubling about the data is that it indicates that media freedom in India is reaching a state of precipitous decline. Have we reached a point of no return, that is the question? Media Ombudsman Pamela Philipose said.
A sense of unease had gripped newsrooms across the country, sparking a sense of fear for their future.
Edited by: Alex Berry