ITANAGAR, Oct 22: Two leading media freedom organizations have issued a joint call on the Indian authorities to take urgent action to prevent the increasing use of sedition laws and other legal sanctions to threaten and silence independent journalists.
In a joint letter, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “take immediate steps to ensure that journalists can work without harassment and fear of reprisal… and direct the state governments to drop all charges against journalists, including those under the draconian sedition laws, that have been imposed on them for their work.”
The call comes amid a worrying increase in the use of sedition charges against journalists in India and accusations that numerous states “are attempting to stifle press freedom by filing cases against journalists under different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The number of cases has increased enormously after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the past few months, IFJ and the IPI members have protested to the authorities over an increasing number of journalists being charged under Section 124 A of the IPC, which punishes sedition with three years to life in prison. The number of cases has increased enormously after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the most recent case, on 5 October, a Kerala-based journalist, Siddique Kappan, who was trying to reach the family of a rape victim in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested and charged with sedition.
In May, Dhaval Patel, editor and owner of a Gujarati news portal, ‘Face of Nation’, was charged with sedition and detained by the police for publishing a report that suggested that the political leadership in the state would change. He was also accused of spreading false panic under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act.
Chhattisgarh police filed a sedition case against Kamal Shukla, editor of Bhumkal Samachar, for sharing a cartoon on Facebook that referred to the Supreme Court’s decision to reject petitions calling for an independent investigation into the mysterious death of special Central Bureau of Investigation judge Brijgopal Loya in 2014.
The joint letter states: “The number of cases filed against journalists has increased enormously after the spread of the pandemic. The health crisis is being used as an excuse to silence those who have exposed shortcoming in the government’s response to it, while on the contrary it is important for both citizens and the public authorities to have factual information about the situation in order to best respond to the pandemic. A free media is essential to a successful public health response.
“The use of sedition laws to harass independent, critical journalists is not only a gross violation of the country’s international commitments, it is also an attempt by the government to silence any criticism. Journalistic work cannot be equated to sedition or undermining security.”
As many as 55 journalists were targeted for covering the pandemic in India between 25 March, when lockdown was first imposed, and 31 May, a report by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group has shown.