Press Freedom in India

New Challenges, Intensifying Struggles

On 18 February 2013, a reporter with The Hindu, southern India’s largest selling newspaper in the English language, submitted an application to the office of the Lokayukta or anti-corruption ombudsman, in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka state. The application, made under India’s powerful Right to Information (RTI) law, sought details of the docket of cases that the Lokayukta had before it at the time. The state of Karnataka had seen three changes of government during the five-year tenure of the legislative assembly, then just drawing to a close. All these had been on account of serious public apprehensions about corruption. The Lokayukta’s docket of cases was in this sense, a matter of obvious public importance.

A response was sent in under a month, with the designated official within the Lokayukta office, telling the applicant that as representative of a “corporate body” called The Hindu, he was not eligible to receive information under the RTI law. This supposedly, had been the decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC), which is under Indian law, the final court of appeal outside formal judicial processes, in matters involving the citizen’s right to be informed.

The CIC ruling cited, it emerged on closer examination, did not quite use the terms attributed to it, though it did seem to uphold the principle that a corporate entity would not be entitled to seek information under RTI. There was an obvious anomaly there, since the applicant in the case cited, as a private citizen of India, would have been perfectly entitled to receive any information sought, subject only to the exclusions permitted under law. Presumably if the applicant had given his residential address, rather than revealing his identity as chief executive of a firm doing business with the department concerned (the Indian Railways in this case), he would have been perfectly entitled to receive the information.

In another case that may have been relevant, though it was not directly cited, a chartered accountancy firm was held ineligible to apply for information about a competitor’s statutory filings before the regulatory authority established by law. Though not interpreted with great finesse, the ruling in this instance, seemed to conform with the principle that the RTI act would not entertain applications for “third party information” that could affect the competitive status of that party.

None of these arguments for information denial had any validity in the matter of a newspaper applying for information of public importance. The Karnataka Lokayukta seemed clearly to have misread the two precedents to deny a newspaper reporter the information he was seeking. There are a number of identifiable reasons why the Karnataka Lokayukta would be held in breach of the RTI’s provisions.

No basis to deny media information under RTI

There is to begin with, an explicit provision that no applicant under RTI shall be asked the reason why he or she is seeking any information. And then, even if the applicant is required to provide an address, the clear understanding is that this would only be for purposes of facilitating communication. In no case is the address provided in an application to be basis for identifying whether the applicant is an individual citizen or a corporate entity. Nor can the address provided be used to read any motive into the application. And finally, the constitutional doctrine on freedom of speech in India holds that a newspaper, even if published by a corporate entity, is to be differentiated in terms of its editorial content, from the profit and loss calculus of the company. Granting a newspaper reporter any information does not compromise any other corporate entity’s competitive position. It only contributes to a better informed public.

The episode was symptomatic of a deeper issue facing the Indian media over the recent past, an issue which acquired fresh salience over the year under review. In November 2012, two senior editors and news anchors with the leading private broadcaster Zee TV, were arrested on charges of extortion filed by a mining and energy conglomerate, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. Sudhir Chaudhary, head of Zee News and Samir Ahluwalia of Zee Business, face charges of seeking a lucrative five year advertising deal from the Jindal company, as quid pro quo for suppressing news of the possible allotment to the company of coal mining franchises at rates well below fair market value. A member of the Jindal family represents the ruling Congress Party in India’s Parliament and the finding by the country’s principal audit authority, of possible irregularities in coal mines allotment, led to a stormy political controversy. The two Zee news executives allegedly met the representative of the Jindal family to argue the case for an advertising deal stretched over five years, in exchange for suppressing news on the company’s involvement in the coal mining scandal. A recording of the meeting was leaked by the company. The two news executives were arrested shortly afterwards and held for close to three weeks before being released on bail.

The incident led to a great deal of debate within the media community over the direction in which the industry is moving under the relentless pressure of competition and the very real prospect now, of a slowdown in advertising growth. Zee TV belongs to the Essel Group of companies which is a highly diversified business conglomerate. In the media sector alone, Zee is credited with pioneering the cable and satellite television boom in India. It now runs ten news channels in various languages and over seventeen in the sports and entertainment categories. It has an estimated clientele of 10 million households for its cable distribution and also, a satellite direct-to-home venture. Since 2005, it has been a presence in the print media, in partnership with a Hindi-language publisher which has since divested, leaving it sole owner of a newspaper that is printed in five of India’s metropolitan centres.

That this incident occurred at a time when public worries about the practice of “paid news” or “cash for coverage” are running high, did little to staunch the rapid erosion of faith in the media. Indeed in December 2012, the Press Council of India (PCI) censured four leading newspapers – three in the Hindi language and one in English – for dressing up paid advertisements boosting particular candidates’ image as news items during the 2010 elections to the state legislative assembly in Bihar state.

Consultations on cross-media ownership

Under discussion for long, the debate on media regulation has not progressed very much over the last twenty years or more. Another phase of public consultations on the issue was opened by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on a mandate from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in the year under review. An initial position paper was released by the TRAI on February 15, inviting public responses. The consultations are at this time, still ongoing.

The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), a SAMSN partner and constituent unit of the IFJ-affiliate, the Indian Journalists’ Union, in its submission to the TRAI, focused on the growing dependence of media revenues on advertising spending. Advertising contributes 66 percent of total revenue in India’s print media and over 35 percent in the television sector. In the TV sector, over 90 percent of gross subscriptions paid, goes for carriage rather than content.  In a context of economic downturn, with advertising expenses virtually stagnant and the share of the print media possibly shrinking, there could be serious implications for job security and for the continuing well-being of small and medium newspapers. Quality of media content is also likely to be severely impaired, in both print and TV sectors.

The DUJ also pointed out that three media groups in India, which publish the largest circulated English-language dailies, account for over 39 percent of total revenue and 44 percent of total advertising revenue in the Indian print media. The readership of these three papers is not more than 40 million, in India’s total newspaper readership of roughly 600 million. Newspaper groups that have around 6 percent of total readership, in other words, dominate the revenue streams available to sustain the print media. Many large publishing groups have diversified into the television, radio, online and outdoor advertising sectors. Repeated recent efforts to legislate a set of norms to preserve media diversity and plurality, have failed to produce results.

Concentration in the media industry is an ever growing reality and the DUJ has warned that India is “heading towards a situation of media monopoly” and urged that this be viewed from a broad public interest point of view. Media growth has been averaging about 15 percent since 2003: more than overall economic growth rate. Increasing competition for advertising revenue has damaged media standards and led to a loss of public credibility. Public scepticism about the media is now at an unprecedented high. Incidents such as the “Radia tapes” (see Free Speech in Peril, IFJ’s Press Freedom Report for South Asia, 2011, page 22) where senior media professionals were found to be engaged in conversations with an industry lobbyist to “fix” political appointments, have contributed to the growing public scepticism.

The advertisement driven media model is seen increasingly to be adverse to public interest. Growing monopoly tendencies threaten a further exclusion of the socially and economically disadvantaged. In this light, the DUJ proposed in its submission to TRAI, that “methods of enforcing public accountability on the media industry need to be explored, which are not coercive and which do not threaten article 19 guarantees of the Constitution on freedom of expression”. “Media regulation”, the DUJ has recommended, “needs to target greater inclusion and the possibility of giving voice to the socially and economically disadvantaged as a priority”.

On the proposal of a “negative list” that TRAI has put forward, restricting particular kinds of entities such as political parties and religious bodies from owning media assets, the DUJ counselled caution. The right to free political speech should not be abridged, it argued, but at the same time, religious bodies that feed sectarian prejudices and foster obscurantist beliefs could conceivably be restrained from media ownership.

Consultation on challenges for journalism

These issues were among the diverse professional challenges that India’s main journalism unions discussed during a day-long consultation on 8 August 2012. The DUJ hosted the meeting. The top leadership of the IJU and other IFJ affiliates, the National Union of Journalists (India) and the All-India Newspaper Employees Federation, participated and spoke. Journalists’ unions from the states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, which have faced the additional challenges posed by widespread conditions of armed insurgency, were also represented.

The action plan that emerged seeks to bring the struggle for a new deal for journalists to the very foreground of a public campaign for restoring quality and credibility in the news media. First among the three principal challenges discussed were the threats to the integrity of news gathering and dissemination, as represented currently in the practice of “cash for coverage”. The meeting identified the declining quality of employment in journalism, best represented by the continuing disregard by India’s main news organisations of the provisions of the Working Journalists’ Act (WJA, or the Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees, Conditions of Service Act, to render it in full), as one of the reasons for the growing trust deficit in the media. Employment is now predominantly on the basis of short-term contracts, and the statutory recommendations of “wage boards” periodically constituted to determine levels of compensation in the news industry, are for the most part, flouted by even the most profitable news organisations. Insecurity of employment and the decline of collective strength at the work-place, had devalued editorial autonomy and made journalism increasing susceptible to the pressures of advertising and commercial departments.

Employment contracts, it was reported at the meeting, frequently stipulate that journalists would need to seek the prior management consent before joining any union or professional association. This manner of a restriction, it was agreed, was in violation of international covenants on core labour standards that India is party to, and also contrary to the basic right of freedom of association granted under the Indian Constitution.

Print, electronic and online media have grown rapidly over the last decade in India in a regulatory vacuum. In recent years, civil society groups, political parties and legally empowered bodies such as the PCI and the TRAI, have been joining the debate on regulation, responding to widespread public concerns over media content.  Participants at the 8 August meeting identified a number of recent instances when existing laws had been misapplied to harass and victimise journalists who had brought to light important information that served the public interest, while causing some embarrassment and awkwardness to powerful organised groups. The first priority of ongoing debates on regulation, it was pointed out, should be to ensure that the laws are applied consistently and in accordance with the best precedents both in India and abroad, to safeguard the right of journalists to report freely and fairly.

The meeting reaffirmed the longstanding union demand that a fresh review be conducted of the regulatory framework of the India media, and that the PCI be reconstituted on a fresh basis, so that it is equal to the complexities of the new media environment. Another priority for journalists’ unions was to intervene forcefully in ongoing litigation over the legitimacy of the WJA and the validity of the most recent wage award for journalists and other newspaper employees. The G.R. Majithia Wage Boards for Journalists and Non-Journalists submitted its report recommending an all-round increase of levels of pay for newspaper workers in December 2010. After due deliberation, India’s Union Cabinet formally approved these recommendations in October 2011. Newspaper enterprises, both individually — and collectively through the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) — had meanwhile filed a number of petitions before the country’s highest court, claiming an infringement of their fundamental rights in the statutory wage fixation process. After several procedural difficulties, hearings in this batch of petitions were conducted for two weeks in February 2013.

These petitions, legal experts invited to the Delhi meeting argued, did not put forward any fresh grounds for holding the WJA invalid. Rather, all the pleas advanced by the newspaper industry had been dealt with by Supreme Court judgments in 1958 and 1988, holding the WJA to be entirely consistent with constitutional provisions on fundamental rights. The whole process nevertheless ended in disappointment for India’s journalism unions. On 2 April 2013, the Supreme Court bench that began hearing the matter in February, expressed its inability to continue since the senior of two judges on the bench would retire on 18 April. The matter was on this account posted for hearing on 9 July 2013, before a new bench to the constituted by the Chief Justice of India. Counsel representing the Confederation of Newspaper and News Agency Employees – a body constituted to deal with the Wage Board process — argued the case for a quick disposal of the matter, but failed to win the concurrence of the bench. Unions have been urging the Government of India, as one side in the tripartite wage bargaining process, to show greater seriousness about implementing the wage award. But the Government seems in no state to take on the power of the newspaper industry at a time when crucial elections at the state and national levels are imminent.

Press Council seeks minimum standards for journalists

Part of the general disgruntlement over declining media quality was represented in the announcement by the PCI on 12 March 2013, that it would explore the possibility of having minimum academic qualifications for journalists. The announcement by the PCI put down the lowering of standards in the media to the alleged fact that there was “no qualification for entry into the profession of journalism”. It then observed that “the media has an important influence on the lives of the people” and proposed a three-member committee to inquire into the possibility of enforcing a legal qualification for individuals seeking employment as journalists. The following day, the PCI expanded the committee with the nomination of three more members and enlarged its mandate to consider the quality of instruction imparted in journalism training institutions. The committee is now also empowered to recommend the manner in which the PCI could monitor journalism training institutions to ensure quality and standards.

Journalists in India reacted immediately and overwhelmingly, pointing out that openness was the very essence of the profession and learning on the job, the most effective mode of acquiring its basic skills. To blame a lack of academic credentials for the decline in news standards showed very poor awareness of the circumstances under which journalism functioned. Expenses on training and human resource development had fallen, with several news organisations spinning off these activities as separate profit centres. And another factor contributing to declining standards, was the willingness of news organisations, principally worried about safeguarding profits, to limitlessly accommodate commercial and political pressures.

Beyond the challenges that journalists face on a daily basis, the year under review posed a number of adversities for news reporting that sought to go beyond the routine and uncover information of real public value. Within a milieu of heightened concern over terrorism, journalists faced criminal charges for pointing out with due diligence and concern for all the professional norms, that police investigations were often going seriously astray. Others were directly implicated in terrorism plots.

The shadow of terrorism

The longest-drawn agony for a journalist in India in recent times was the imprisonment of Syed Mohammad Ahmad Kazmi, arrested on 6 March 2012, on charges of aiding and abetting a bomb attack on an Israeli diplomatic vehicle in India’s capital city. Kazmi was then working for an Iranian news agency in Delhi and also for India’s state-owned TV channel, Doordarshan, as a news presenter in Urdu language bulletins. His bail application which first came up before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate of Delhi in April 2012, was turned down on the grounds that investigations were still underway. On 2 June 2012, despite charges still not being laid, the Magistrate extended Kazmi’s remand beyond the ninety days permitted under the special Indian law dealing with terrorism offences.

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Syed Kazmi, held over six months on terrorism charges and now released on bail, has launched an Urdu daily in which he hopes to deal with issues of human rights and national security (Photo: Qaumi Salamati, Delhi).

Bail for Kazmi was finally granted on 19 October 2012, after India’s Supreme Court held that the Magistrate had erred in this respect. Though extension of remand beyond ninety days is permitted even in the absence of a chargesheet, this is not a decision within the jurisdiction of the Magistrate. The competent authority —  in this case the Sessions Judge — had held Kazmi eligible for bail after ninety days remand. In the circumstances, the Magistrate further erred in granting the police sufficient time to file another application for extension of remand. The whole sequence of events showed how police forces which function with the agenda of securing maximum impact through media coverage, though often in disregard of the law, are able to influence public perceptions and escape serious public scrutiny, even when they victimise innocent citizens.

Following Kazmi’s release,  SAMSN partners in India urged the Delhi Police to follow a policy of full transparency in investigating where the mistakes originated.  Information since made available points to the distinct possibility that Kazmi’s arrest was made on unclear and insufficient evidence. Journalists’ unions have also called for rigorous introspection from the media on the coverage of Kazmi’s arrest, which tended to be uncritical and to blazon the police claims as absolute truth.

A substantial part of the case against Kazmi was built on his telephone records, which revealed a number of calls to Iran’s capital, Tehran, around the time that the bomb attack against the Israeli diplomatic vehicle occurred. The DUJ for one, argued that this was in all probability, only about Kazmi attending to his professional responsibilities as reporter for a news agency based in the Iranian capital city. “Journalists have to maintain all sorts of contacts and speak to a variety of sources for their news stories”, said the DUJ. “Such connections for professional purposes should not be misconstrued as active collusion or connivance in dubious activities, including crime”.

K.K. Shahina was another journalist who faced criminal prosecution in a matter related to terrorism. Currently working as assistant editor for the weekly magazine, Open, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Shahina was charged with conspiracy and criminal intimidation of witnesses following a story she wrote for the weekly magazine Tehelka in December 2010, casting doubt on the charges of terrorism brought against a prominent Islamic cleric from Kerala state. Facing the possibility of arrest since January 2011, Shahina was granted anticipatory bail by the Karnataka High Court in July 2011. Following summons issued after charges were formally laid against her in January 2013, Shahina appeared before a court in Somwarpet in Kodagu district of Karnataka, to renew her bail. The courtroom where the bail hearing was scheduled was reportedly besieged by activists of the right-wing political group, the Bajrang Dal, on 22 February, just as Shahina made her appearance. Shahina and a few friends who accompanied her to the hearing, were reportedly threatened by the Bajrang Dal activists, who also insisted that a cameraperson show them the visuals he had recorded, to ensure that they could not be identified in public.

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Muthiur Rahman Siddiqui addresses a public meeting in Bengaluru soon after his unconditional discharge in a terrorism case (Photo: N. Jayaram).

Muthiur Rahman Siddiqui, a twenty-six year old reporter and sub-editor with Deccan Herald, the oldest and best-known newspaper in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), was arrested by local police on 27 August 2012, on charges of involvement in a plot hatched by overseas terror groups to kill a number of well-known public figures in the city. He was held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows for detention up to six months without charge. Siddiqui’s case was transferred from local police, who report to the state government of Karnataka, to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a newly created anti-terror agency directly under India’s union government, in December 2012. In February 2013, just as his detention was approaching the six month mark, the NIA informed the court hearing the matter, that it had no evidence to bring charges against Siddiqui. Following his unconditional discharge, Siddiqui was released on 25 February. In remarks to the press shortly after his release, Siddiqui spoke of a harrowing time in detention and suggested that media reports at the time of his arrest may have unfairly denied him the presumption of innocence and held him guilty without trial.

The Deccan Herald has assured Siddiqui of reinstatement in the job he held prior to his arrest.

The case of Naveen Soorinje

Naveen Soorinje, also from Karnataka state, was another journalist who went through a prolonged period of incarceration. The reason here was not terrorism, but his purported involvement in mob violence against a group of partying teenagers. Soorinje, a reporter for the Kasturi TV news channel in the district of Mangalore in Karnataka, had filmed the moral vigilante attack of July 2012 after being alerted to possible violence by bystanders and residents of the area. His footage was broadcast over the channel, leading to widespread outrage and the quick arrest of the main perpetrators of violence. In November 2012, when local police filed charges, Soorinje was listed as accused number 44 on the grounds that he had accompanied the attackers to the spot and circulated video footage which revealed the identity of the victims and exposed the female victims in particular to social ridicule and ostracism.

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Naveen Soorinje was arrested in November 2012 on charges of involvement in mob violence and then remanded to judicial custody; he only secured bail after three months (Photo: Daya Kukkaje, Daijiworld).

Soorinje was arrested on 7 November 2012 amid much outrage among local journalists. In a memorandum submitted to local police authorities, the Udupi District Union of Working Journalists pointed out that the incident had led to intense debate within the profession about the manner in which a reporter should go about his job when he is aware of an illegal act being committed. Questions could justifiably be raised about the duty of the reporter in a situation when he or she is witness to an illegal action: whether it is to first inform the authorities of the illegality or to document it. The district union pointed out in this context that neither was there evidence of wrongdoing on Soorinje’s part nor of any prior knowledge of the intent to carry out the attack. His reporting, on the contrary, was of direct utility to the officers of the law in bringing the culprits to account.

Yet, bail pleas at the district court and the Karnataka High Court failed. A decision by the Cabinet in Karnataka to drop charges against him was not executed after a legal challenge in the High Court, launched by a person with obvious political motivations. On 18 March 2013, the Karnataka High Court again took up his bail plea on the strength of a letter written by one of the victims, which recorded that Soorinje had actually reached the spot of the mob violence well after the attackers. Even as he filmed the events, Soorinje was reported to have continually remonstrated with the attackers to stop the violence and particularly, to spare the female victims. Following the High Court ruling that he should be released on a bond of INR 500,000 (roughly USD 10,000) and a personal surety of the same amount, Soorinje was released from detention on 23 March.

Media as accessory to mob violence

Quite a different scenario in terms of ethical dimensions, had been enacted in the north-eastern state of Assam shortly before the incidents in Karnataka. Late evening on 9 July 2012, a shocking incident of the public molestation of a young girl by a mob of more than twenty men was captured on video camera by a news channel reporter in Guwahati city in Assam. The video material soon went viral on the web, provoking mass public outrage and questions over the role of the news reporter in the incident.

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SAMSN partner, the National Union of Journalists of India carried out a public campaign through the year for a law protecting journalists (Photo: courtesy NUJ(I)).

The Journalists’ Union of Assam (JUA), a constituent unit of the IFJ-affiliated IJU, reacted sharply and called on all journalists to “adhere to the norms of journalistic conduct set by the Press Council of India and International Federation of Journalists”. Human rights groups in Assam analysed the entire video recording of the incident and concluded that a reporter with the NewsLive channel may have provoked and instigated the attack. The video featured some of the twenty strong mob striking a pose for the camera and at least one occasion when the camera focused on the face of the victim and a microphone was thrust forward and inquiries made about her name and identity. Perpetrators of the crime were also seen brushing the hair off the victim’s face so that her identity could be captured on camera.

The news channel management defended the reporter’s conduct, on the grounds that his video footage helped local police in identifying the perpetrators of the crime. The management claimed that the reporter happened to be passing by at the time of the incident and reacted as any newsperson would, summoning the sole cameraman on duty at the news channel’s nearby office. The reporter resigned soon afterwards from his job with the channel, owned by a powerful local politician and minister in the Assam state cabinet. He was arrested and put on trial on all applicable charges, but acquitted on grounds that he may have been no more than a bystander.

The incident highlighted how the pervasive spread of new digital technologies and the rapid and largely unregulated growth of the visual media, made a full and authoritative restatement of the norms of journalistic conduct in situations involving crime and the violation of basic human rights, an absolute imperative.

Kashmir

In the early hours of 9 February 2013, curfew was imposed in several districts of the Kashmir region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and journalists seeking to go to work were told that they could not. It then emerged that an execution had taken place in utmost secrecy in Delhi’s Tihar jail, of a person convicted of conspiring in the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament compound. The formal announcement of the execution occurred shortly after 8 a.m. At around 10:30 a.m., Iftikhar Gilani, a senior journalist with the multi-edition newspaper, Daily News and Analysis, was approached by two men as he left his Delhi home for work. He was asked for directions to the residence of the dissident Kashmiri politician Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who happens to be his father-in-law. Gilani showed the two men to the nearby location of interest, in the belief that they may be from a courier agency. Once there, the two men identified themselves as personnel of the Special Cell of Delhi Police and forced Gilani indoors. A little later, Gilani’s wife was also escorted to the flat by two other policemen.

Gilani and his wife were detained for five hours and released only after colleagues intervened at the highest levels of the Delhi Police. During this time, his own home was occupied by personnel of the Special Cell and his children put through considerable trauma. SAMSN partners in Delhi condemned this mistreatment of a journalist, and recalled his seven months of incarceration in 2002 on trumped up charges under the Official Secrets Act. PCI Chairman Markandey Katju, in a strongly worded letter to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, characterised the actions of the Delhi Police as “high-handed” and “outrageous” and demanded disciplinary proceedings against the men responsible.

Meanwhile, the curfew imposed in most districts of Kashmir and the retaliatory general strike called by dissident political organisations, paralysed all activity in the region. SAMSN partners in Kashmir reported that journalists who managed to reach their places of work despite these adversities, found that the entire effort was futile, since newspaper publication and local news broadcasts were suspended by policemen who visited their offices and handed out informal advisories. This intervention reportedly came late on the evening of February 9, when most newspapers were getting ready to print. Internet and mobile phone services in Kashmir were also partly disabled. A semblance of normality was only restored after a whole week.

Journalists in Kashmir nonetheless managed to get the word out and express their unhappiness over the clampdown through a number of channels, mostly involving the social media, another domain where India witnessed intense contention over the year under review. In a domain where rules of participation are loose and undefined, where power and potential are seemingly immense, the official attitude in India seemed to oscillate between extreme and draconian invocations of the law and absolute helplessness.

Social media challenges all controls

On 15 August 2012, as India celebrated the sixty-five year anniversary of its independence, people from the north-eastern states settled in the southern city of Bangalore — a major hub of the information technology industry — crowded in large numbers to the city’s railway station, seeking the earliest available passage back home. The following day, despite anxious efforts by government officials and the police to allay fears, a similar mass flight occurred from Pune, Hyderabad  and Chennai, all cities with mixed populations and cosmopolitan traditions. Those fleeing these cities booked themselves, for the most part, on trains headed to the city of Guwahati in Assam state, the economic hub of the eight states collectively known as “north-eastern India”.

The mass panic in these cities was caused by SMS messages warning of retaliation for sectarian violence that began in Assam late in July. Four districts of Assam were gutted by mass violence that went on for over a month, between people of the Muslim faith – deemed to be illegal immigrants — and the Bodo tribal community which claims original ownership of the land.

The prelude to this unprecedented mass panic was the mob violence on 11 August 2012 in the western Indian metropolis of Mumbai, which followed a demonstration organised by a cultural organisation, the Raza Academy and a newly floated political platform, the Awami Vikas Party, to protest against the violence in Assam. Seemingly without provocation, the demonstration turned violent, with specific intent to target media persons. Three outdoor broadcasting (OB) vans belonging to well-known news channels were set ablaze in the violence which broke out after speakers at the protest meeting denounced the media for their alleged inattention to the suffering inflicted on members of the religious minority in Assam. Three photo-journalists were left seriously injured. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the demonstrators asking for the identity of the media persons present at the spot, before attacking them. The technicians staffing the OB van were asked to step out and flee if they did not want to get burnt along with the vehicle.

A rigorous study by a well-respected film maker and social analyst, showed that the sense of grievance over atrocities on a particular religious community, may have been stoked by manipulated images circulated over the internet, either in gross ignorance or with deliberate intent to foment violence. Following the violence in Mumbai though, the SMS texts warning of severe retribution against people of north-eastern Indian extraction in all cities began circulating, without any source being identified. The Journalists’ Union of Assam (JUA), a unit of the IFJ-affiliated Indian Journalists’ Union, raised a red flag over this alarming spread of rumour on 16 August and called for responsible media conduct to push back against the tide.

On 17 August, the Indian government ordered a ban on SMS messages directed over the mobile phone network, to more than five recipients. It also issued notices to all internet service providers (ISPs) to block a number of websites held guilty of highly inflammatory content on Assam events. For days after the ban order was issued, mobile phone and internet users remained unsure about its exact scope. An analysis based on best available information, showed that it applied to a number of items – including twitter posts, blogs, URL’s and entire websites – which had published content on the ethnic violence in Assam. Many of these dealt with the need for sober assessment of images and words that were being uncritically circulated over the internet. The ban on SMS and the blocking of websites, including social media sites, was in other words, a blunt instrument to deal with the threat posed by rumour, simply because it did not manage to separate posts made with intent to create violence, from those that sought to restore harmony.

On 8 September 2012, police in Mumbai arrested Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist and anti-corruption campaigner, on charges of sedition and causing insult to India’s “national honour”. Trivedi was remanded to a week in police custody on 9 September. Following critical remarks by the Home Minister of Maharashtra state and much public outrage, the police on 10 September informed the court that it had completed investigations into a criminal complaint filed in January and had no further need to detain Trivedi. The cartoonist however, refused to apply for bail, demanding his unconditional discharge in all cases. In the circumstances, his remand was extended for another two weeks.

All the grounds for Trivedi’s arrest were established by competent legal authorities to be flimsy. India’s Supreme Court as far back as 1962, had held the sedition clause of the penal code violative of the fundamental right to free speech, unless invoked to deal with an imminent threat of violence. No such threat of violence arose from the publication of Trivedi’s cartoons on a website which was later shut down. The other laws that Trivedi was charged under — the Prevention of Insults to National Honour (PINH) Act and Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act – seemed clearly to specify a test of intent as key in their invocation. The accused must in other words, be found to have used words and representations with deliberate intent to cause offence. Here again, most competent authorities concluded that Trivedi’s cartoons did not display any clear intent to offend. Rather, they could just as well have been interpreted in substance as holding India’s elected representatives guilty of dishonouring the national emblems by their acts of corruption and malfeasance.

Sedition law has all too frequently been invoked to imprison and intimidate journalists in India. In the insurgency affected districts of the eastern state of Orissa alone, four cases of sedition have been registered against journalists in the last few years, mostly to clamp down on public-spirited reporting that exposes serious abuses and deficiencies in local administration. In June 2008, the commissioner of police in Ahmedabad brought charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against two journalists and the local edition of the Times of India, after the newspaper carried a series of reports about his less than distinguished service record. Though granted bail and not imprisoned like their counterparts in Orissa, the journalists were only absolved of all charges in April 2012.

In Trivedi’s case, the charge of sedition under article 124A of the Indian Penal Code was withdrawn in quick time. He was released on bail on 12 September, after posting a bail bond of INR 5,000 (roughly USD 100), though he continues to face charges under the PINH Act and the Information Technology Act.

Moments of grief

Indian journalism suffered a moment of deep grief with the death of photo-journalist Tarun Sehrawat, after he contracted multiple infections on assignment in the Abujmarh region of India’s Chhattisgarh state. Sehrawat was on assignment with the weekly news and current affairs magazine Tehelka and with his colleague, reporter Tusha Mittal, spent a week early in May in the thickly forested area, believed to be among the main operational bases of the Maoist insurgency that has in recent years been active in parts of Chhattisgarh and neighbouring states. Their account of life in an area that remains for the most part beyond the media gaze, was published in the print edition of the magazine dated 12 May 2012.

India 07

Tarun Sehrawat, seen at the site of an armed encounter with Maoist insurgents, died of multiple infections contracted on assignment in covering the conflict regions. (Photo: courtesy Tehelka).

Both Sehrawat and Mittal came down with severe infections at about the same time. Mittal recovered after two weeks under intensive care but Sehrawat was hit by a combination of jaundice, typhoid and malaria, and slipped into a coma. He regained consciousness early in June, but suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage on 10 June . He died on 15 June aged 22, the cause of death identified as cerebral malaria. His death brought home to the Indian media community yet again, the importance of following a safety code when undertaking assignments in hazardous areas.

Raihan Nayum, a twenty-eight year old  journalist from Dhubri in Assam was attacked and killed by unidentified miscreants late on the evening of 8 September 2012. A correspondent with a local weekly, Nayum may have fallen victim to the communal tension that had arisen across the state following the outbreak of violence between members of the Muslim community and indigenous tribal groups.

Nanao Singh who worked for India’s state-controlled TV broadcaster, Doordarshan and numerous other channels, died of bullet wounds as he covered a public demonstration on 23 December 2012 in Imphal, capital of Manipur state. A number of social and political organisations had been demonstrating in Manipur demanding the arrest and prosecution of an insurgent leader active in the state, for allegedly assaulting a prominent film personality in full public view a few days earlier. One such demonstration was fired upon by the police, apparently with no prior warning. Nanao Singh, according to eyewitness Bijoy Krishna, also a news cameraman, sought to continue filming the events from behind a pillar, but was hit by a bullet in the chest. Police only stopped firing after Bijoy Krishna raised an alarm over his injured colleague. Nanao Singh was then shifted to a hospital but died within an hour.

The All-Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) pressured the state administration to order an official inquiry. The report of the official inquiry was submitted on 4 January but as this report is prepared for the press, is yet to be made public

Tonggam Rina, associate editor of the Arunachal Times, was shot at and severely injured in Itanagar, capital of the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, on 15 June 2012. Rina had reportedly faced threats in the weeks prior, over her reporting. One such instance followed her reporting on certain irregularities in the functioning of the public distribution system for food and other essential commodities in the state. There were also threats held out against her after she reported on the factional rivalries within an armed underground group in two districts of the state. The office of her newspaper was ransacked on 16 April 2012 this year and the attackers were still at large when the attempt on her life occurred. Rina had also written and involved herself in local environmental campaigns against a proposal to build a series of giant dams in Arunachal Pradesh. This could have earned her the anger of lobbies that stood to gain from the construction of the environmentally controversial structures.

Again in the north-east of India, a number of newspersons on assignment were attacked during a day-long general strike called on 28 August 2012 by a youth political organisation in the state of Assam. With the intercession of the JUA, one of those injured, cameraman Jayanta Das, was able to get compensation for his losses, which included a phone and a camera that were smashed beyond repair, from an international media support organisation. Other losses suffered on that day, remain unrequited. And in Nagaland state, photojournalist Caisii Mao was attacked on 1 September 2012 while covering clashes between two armed groups belonging to rival tribes in the district headquarters town of Dimapur. The clashes erupted after a young man belonging to one of the tribes died while in the custody of the other the previous day. Caisii Mao suffered large bruises around his knees and arms and his camera was destroyed in the incident, which reportedly occurred in the presence of security forces deployed to control the protesters.

In Hyderabad, capital of the southern state Andhra Pradesh, a number of media personnel were blocked from covering the session of a global conference on biodiversity addressed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ) a unit of the IFJ-affiliated Indian Journalists’ Union, recorded that all journalists carried proper credentials and had been accessing the venue without impediment until 16 October 2012, when the Indian Prime Minister was scheduled to address. Journalists belonging to five media groups were prevented from attending the session, seemingly for no other reason than their news organisations bearing a reference to the regional unit “Telangana” in their names. Telangana is a region of Andhra Pradesh where a political agitation, demanding a separate state within the Indian union, has been underway for several years. The journalists were reportedly told that they were being blocked on grounds of suspicion that they might use the Prime Minister’s presence in the biodiversity conference as an occasion for registering a political protest.

The APUWJ condemned the action as reeking of “authoritarianism”. Whatever the names of the media organisations concerned, the APUWJ reminded the authorities, there is nothing called a “Telangana media” since the print and electronic platforms concerned reach audiences well beyond the putative borders of this region. This was in the judgment of media freedom experts, a clear instance of prior restraint, when journalists are prevented from doing their jobs on grounds of mere suspicion.

A case of sexual harassment was reported from the Sun TV news channel based in the southern Indian city of Chennai. The person in question had joined the network in its headquarters in December 2011 as a news anchor and producer. Over time she began to face extraordinary pressures on the job. Refusal to comply led allegedly to the person’s probation being extended, her earned perks – such as the annual bonus – being denied, and finally, to her being threatened with “dire consequences” if she went public with the situation she faced. Despite a time-honoured convention that women would not be put on shifts at odd times of the 24×7 news cycle, she was soon afterwards assigned as anchor for the 6 a.m. news bulletin, requiring her to report at work an hour ahead.

After repeated protests failed to fetch any relief, the person on 19 March 2013, filed a complaint of sexual harassment with the nearest police station. Her two immediate seniors, were soon afterwards arrested and charged under the law applicable in the state of Tamil Nadu. But shortly afterwards, the complainant began receiving threatening telephone calls. A male colleague who had supported her struggle against harassment was placed under suspension. On 25 March, when she reported for work at her appointed time, she was not allowed to anchor the assigned noon news bulletin. A day later, one of the men named in her complaint rejoined Sun TV after securing bail. She was served an order of suspension the following day.

Gender equity and fairness are issues that the Indian news media still needs to address seriously. This was evident in the dismissal in early April 2013, of two senior programme executives from the public broadcaster All India Radio, after complaints received from no fewer than twenty-five female staff over a period of two years.

An uncertain period ahead

In term of its immediate prospects, the Indian news industry faces a number of uncertainties. Industry fortunes went into freefall with the global economic meltdown of September 2008, but recovered within a year with strong stimulus measures kicking in. Advertising growth in the Indian economy picked up momentum in the following years, but in 2012 may have hit a slump. Projections show that the growth rate has fallen from the buoyant double digit figures of the years following 2003, to a relatively modest single digit.

Credibility issues remain to be addressed. The growth in numbers of TV news channels has not contributed clearly to a diversity of choices. Meanwhile, the entire system of ratings which determines the allocation of advertisement monies between channels, has come under a cloud. In August 2012, a leading news channel, NDTV Ltd, filed suit for $ 1.4 billion against a TV ratings agency for allegedly falsifying records in exchange for a monetary consideration. NDTV, a news broadcaster in Hindi and English, claimed that Television Audience Measurement, a joint venture of the global market research giant A.C. Nielsen, had caused it losses to the tune of $ 800 million by deliberately understating its viewership numbers. The petition that NDTV filed in the Supreme Court of New York, read like a catalogue of corrupt practices that could cause serious long-term damage to the public interest. At the time of writing, the respondents in the case had successfully obtained a ruling from a lower court, ordering that the case be heard in an Indian court. NDTV had announced that it would contest this ruling, on the grounds that the lower court had not considered its case in all aspects.

Debt incurred in a phase of rapid expansion began causing acute distress to the Deccan Chronicle media group through the year under review. Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd (DCHL) publishes four newspaper titles – Deccan Chronicle, Asian Age, Financial Chronicle and Andhra Bhoomi — from various Indian cities. It also held a franchise to field a team in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, currently in its sixth season. The IPL franchise was sold under the pressure of the company’s estimated debt of INR 50 billion (just under USD one billion). Creditors had meanwhile filed suit in the Andhra Pradesh High Court for recovery of loans and the company had submitted a corporate restructuring plan, which proposed among other things, the spinning off of printing and publishing entities as a separate unit. The union representing the DCHL’s one thousand print media employees threatened a strike in December 2012 over the annual bonus remaining unpaid. Security of employment for the staff of this print group remains in serious jeopardy.

By far the greater misfortunes, verging on catastrophe, were suffered by journalists who had taken employment in a clutch of media companies promoted or taken over by the Saradha group of finance companies in the state of West Bengal. By the middle of April 2013, around the time that the state and many other parts of India were celebrating the dawn of a new year, no fewer than three daily newspapers – The Bengal Post and Seven Sisters Post in English, Azad Hind in Urdu and Prabhat Varta in Hindi – announced their closure, along with weekly magazines in Bengali and Urdu, and a number of news and entertainment channels, all under the management of the Saradha group, whose promoter had by then fled. The meltdown of a company that had mobilised savings from across the state with assurances of healthy returns — and then ventured recklessly into influence peddling by buying up a number of media assets — illustrated all that was wrong with the recent phase of unregulated media growth in India. The number of journalists left without a job by the catastrophe, could approach a figure of eight hundred. Along with all other staff in the Saradha group, the number thrown out of employment could reach a few thousands. At the time of this writing, agents who had been tasked by the Saradha group to mobilise savings across the state, had laid siege to governmental offices in the capital city of Kolkata, demanding the arrest of the promoter and the quick implementation of a bailout plan. With several thousands having trusted the shifty promises made by the company and invested their life savings in its instruments, the financial meltdown of the enterprise is likely to snowball into a major political controversy.

Top industry spokespersons at a conference hosted by India’s leading chamber of commerce in March 2013, admitted that the media industry faces a massive deficit of reliable data. “Numbers are supposed to be the foundations of rational business decisions but how can we make decisions when professionals in the business of numbers can’t get their numbers straight?” asked the Rupert Murdoch owned Star TV’s Chief Executive for India, Uday Shankar. “As a TV executive, I am surprised sometimes how I am even able to function. I do not know enough about my viewers – in fact I don’t even know how many of them are there. There are 140 million cable and satellite homes but the measured universe is 62 million households. The country’s premier media agencies can’t even seem to agree on a fact as basic as the size of the advertising market”.

As it enters a phase of more moderate growth and a possible shakeout of unviable entities, the Indian news industry would perhaps discover that the opacity that has been a matter of principle with it – aiding in the evasion of statutory responsibilities such as the payment of fair wages – is really a self-defeating strategy. Regaining public credibility could also mean accepting certain norms of transparency that so far, the industry has been keen only on enjoining on others.

(Extracted from: “Building Resistance, Organising for Change”, the Eleventh Annual Press Freedom Report for South Asia, prepared by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) for the South Asia Media Solidarity Network, May 3, 2013. Full report available at: asiapacific.ifj.org.)

This entry was published on June 15, 2013 at 10:25 am. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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