“If democracy is to be replenished in the coming decades, it is up to us to rekindle the sense of outrage and loss over what is being taken from us…What is at stake here is the human expectation of sovereignty over one’s own life and authorship of one’s own experience.”
~ Shoshana Zuboff, The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism
The Wire’s public editor
What is striking about recent developments in India is the manner in which the media, both legacy and social, have become entangled with the politics of the day. In fact, they have become the site upon which politics plays out.
Whether it is the raid conducted by the Enforcement Directorate on the offices of NewsClick, the ongoing counter-narrative to the farmer protests conducted by the BJP’s troll armies, the spiriting away of journalists by the police, the battles against tweets put out by Greta and Rihanna, the Twitter spats, or the ever-tightening surveillance net cast by the government on media operations, what is at stake, as Shoshana Zuboff reminded us in a different context, is “sovereignty over one’s own life and authorship of one’s own experience.”
The media enables sovereignty which is why an authoritarian government, like the one we presently have, works as hard as it does to control the media, and why citizens need to be concerned about media freedom.
A striking pattern emerges from the government’s recent spate of initiatives to control the media across India and it draws its contours from the ‘Kashmir model’. The writer of The Wire analysis, ‘4G Is Back in J&K After 18 Months, But it Can’t Compensate for What We Lost’ – who had courageously taken the government to court for that media ban in 2019 – draws a stark comparison:
“Not only is the communication gag on farmers familiar, but similar false-flags are also being erected in justification of the curbs. In Kashmir, it was terrorism and security threat from Pakistan, in the farmers’ protest … it is yet again terrorism and Khalistan with an added dash of ‘global conspiracy’.”
Coercion, intimidation, and disciplining of media persons were the hallmarks of the ‘Kashmir model’. It was no coincidence that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was amended in the very session of parliament that saw the reading down of Article 370. As an instrument of torture being sharpened in a furnace before its use, this instrument of a torture-enabling law was passed in parliament without deliberation, allowing the state to deem a person a terrorist – a power which one petition challenging it in the Supreme Court – rightly termed as “discretionary, unfettered and unbound”.
Several journalists in Kashmir were either incarcerated or threatened with incarceration under UAPA. Recently when some of our most senior and respected journalists were booked under the sedition law on the over-stretched charge that their tweets on Republic Day amounted to a conspiracy against the state, the parallel with the ‘Kashmir model’ was unmistakable.
Simultaneously several media establishments in J&K have paid gravely for being on the “wrong” side, losing not just sources of revenue like government advertising, but having their premises raided, their power lines disconnected, and inviting constant police scrutiny. Last October, Kashmir Times’ Srinagar office was sealed in what can only be seen as a vindictive response to its independence.
Now the same tactic is being deployed in Delhi. While some media institutions like India Today – which threw its most credible newsperson and anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai, under the bus – melted under this onslaught, others like NewsClick called out what it saw as “part of a trend of deploying government agencies against those who refuse to toe the establishment’s line”.
The larger intent of the state, whether in Srinagar or Delhi, cannot be clearer: to make invisible any form of anti-government dissent or protest – whether it is the anger of Kashmiris on finding themselves behind an impenetrable wall of silence; or the fierce resistance outside Delhi’s doors of farmers against three farm laws that they perceive as nothing less than a death sentence. In order to achieve this, two instrumentalities of the state have been put into motion: the coercive apparatus of the police and security forces, and arbitrary suspension of the internet.
We know that Kashmiri people and media have had to struggle with a total communication gag – even the landlines went on the blink at one stage. Internet, when it was restored, was limited and slow enough to defeat its very purpose. It took a year after the Supreme Court had ruled that the right to the internet falls within the ambit of right to freedom of expression, for 4G to be restored in the region.
The same tactics are now being unleashed at Delhi’s borders. As concertina wire and barricades of Kashmir came to ring protest sites of farmers in Delhi, internet connectivity also got vaporised. The right of the kisan to constitutionally mandated right to free expression stood utterly compromised, with even the media’s access to them severely curtailed: “The police are doing everything possible to make it impossible for the agitators to continue.”
Two other parallels with the Kashmir model also need to be flagged: the open call for civilian vigilantism and the tightening of the regulatory regime. The J&K Police recently called for a category of people innocuously named “cyber volunteers”. Their job is simple: police the internet for content put out by “radicals” and “anti-nationals” so that they can be tracked. Kashmir is just a point of entry for what will soon be a full-fledged national programme incubated by the Cyber Crime Coordination Centre of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
Meanwhile, the Modi government is battening all the hatches, closing all the loopholes, to make the state immured against the free flow of information. As always, the first moves were made in Kashmir. Last June, a new media policy was introduced that gave government functionaries the discretion to discern “anti-social and anti-national” news. It also among other stipulations put forward the concept of the “empanelment” of news organisations.
Only those which won the tag of “approved” would be eligible for government advertising. Although it was not stated, those outside the list would obviously invite aggregated state attention. Another aspect of this policy had the J&K government’s Department of Information and Public Relations and security agencies being enabled to scour media coverage for “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities”.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, moves to regulate media content in the OTT space are gathering pace as Prakash Javdekar’s ministry works hard to build a panopticon customised for the OTT space, including video streaming platforms, online news portals and the internet in general. The Union ministry of information and broadcasting argues that this is only to clean up the internet in order to prevent fake news, anti-India (read “anti-Hindu) content and terror-related activities, but the similarities with the ‘Kashmir model’ are too obvious to be ignored.
In Kashmir, while journalists spoke out against the new media policy, media institutions were possibly too terrified to speak up against the growing prison house. Will the media in India as a whole stand up against some very blatant censorship-through-the-backdoor plans presently being conceived in Shastri Bhawan? For the moment the plans are limited to the online media. Question is, for how long?
Brave new journalists!
Mandeep Punia’s trial by fire at the Singhu border at the hands of the Delhi Police revealed more than just the courage of a young reporter. It indicated the emergence of a new breed of mediapersons like Mandeep and colleague Dharmender Singh who straddle both legacy and social media with elan, and do so in the non-English language space.
Both markers portend well for the future of Indian journalism despite the crushing blows that have been dealt upon it in recent times. With no secure job and with basic equipment like a camera and mobile phone, Punia and Singh were among the first to start reporting seriously about the kisan protests. They were there at hand to record the BJP’s perfidy in sending in goons pretending to be “locals” to fling stones at the protestors.
Both were made to pay heavily for their expose. They were spirited away by the Delhi Police under the cover of darkness. Their cameras were broken, they were taunted, beaten, disallowed from communicating with family members. This would have been enough to quell any spirit of resistance in most of us – what was striking was how they could turn adversity into opportunity.
Punia, for instance, when he found himself in Delhi’s Tihar jail among many jailed farmers, did not allow the lack of recording equipment to cramp his style. He made notes of his conversations in jail on his feet and legs – the very ones that the police had rained blows upon. After he came out of jail, a tweet sourced from him went: “I am reporting from Tihar: Mandeep Punia. Mujhe pauron par chhot maari gayee aur ab maine unhi pauron par apne journalism ke notes bana liya hain (I have suffered blows on my feet and on those very same injured feet I have written notes for my journalism).”
Women reporters in conflict zones
Chhattisgarh, under the former chief minister Raman Singh, was seen as an Orwellian state, where independent journalism was made impossible. Investigative reporting into the impunity with which rapacious forest and mining mafias conducted themselves was impossible as indeed reportage on the impunity of the security forces protected by the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005.
Now under the Bhupesh Baghel government, Chhattisgarh still witnesses violence and assaults against journalists as the targeting of Pushpa Rokde, a tribal woman journalist, indicated. Pushpa received a death threat, purportedly signed by the Maoist South Bastar Pamed Area Committee in mid-December. Some weeks later, someone claiming to be a “Maoist functionary”, accused her of being a police informer. As the Network of Women in Media, India, (NWMI) points out, such a charge against a reporter known for her work on “people’s issues”, is “dangerous in a polarised conflict zone such as Chhattisgarh, where Maoists have meted out brutal punishments to people assumed to be ‘police informers’.”
Rokde’s case highlights, yet again, the vulnerability of women reporting from conflict zones. She needs to be protected at all costs.
Mail from readers
Sumanta Banerjee writes:
The reports and commentaries on your website, have confirmed my conviction that India under the Narendra Modi rule has degenerated from a ‘failed state’ to a ‘rogue state’. Failing to provide basic needs like health care, housing, education and employment for our citizens among other requirements, the Modi government is resorting to dictatorial tactics to suppress protests from these citizens (eg, the farmers’ agitation). Modi-ruled India is joining the list of ‘rogue states’, Myanmar, Pakistan – and ironically enough – China too. Although Modi is squabbling with his counterpart in Beijing over the border dispute, both share a common policy of repression against the minorities in their respective territories. While Beijing suppresses the Uighurs in Xinjiang, New Delhi suppresses the Muslims in Kashmir.
How do we defeat this ‘rogue state’, and recover and restore our nation to the status of the secular state that was guaranteed by our Constitution? Can The Wire open up a debate on this issue?
Early warning system for Uttarakhand
Fanny Langella writes: “I am the managing editor for PreventionWeb, the global knowledge sharing platform on disaster risk reduction, managed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). Our knowledge base is updated daily and features over 55,000 entries, including news, publications, events, training and job vacancies. Our audience includes specialists working at local, country and regional levels, as well as non-specialists – teachers and students, citizens and journalists. The site receives an average of 100,000 visits per month.
There was this mail from someone who signed “an over-exhausted student”:
Since the COVID outbreak, especially from March 2020, the entire education system shifted to the online mode overnight. It was a luxury for many, while a lot were left struggling. No. I am not just talking about the ones who are not financially well off. I am also talking about the ones whose families have been affected by COVID. Those families have students too.
We know that COVID cases in India breached 10,690,279 and that there were over 153,751 deaths. These are not mere statistics. These are lives of people. Asking (forcing in many cases) students to attend classes, study, work during a time they should be grieving or taking care of their family at home is just downright inhuman. Do people really have a voice to stand up for themselves at a time like that? Being threatened, shamed for not being able to cope and adhering to deadlines – because that’s just how the world functions? Being told that institutional protocols cannot be changed according to individual students.
All this just to show the world that they are functioning just fine, despite the pandemic and taking pride in it. Despite the fact that people are falling sick and losing loved ones.
But if you do care, PLEASE, speak up. Stand up for the ones who cannot; the ones whose voices have been thwarted over time; the ones who have become victims to the disease. Educational institutions, from universities to schools, which are students and staff members inhumanely, should be exposed.
We should do it together. I can’t do it alone. Not anymore. I am done. Depleted.
Sudha Bharadwaj’s detention
February 13 marks 900 days since Indian activist Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested and imprisoned. On this day, global civil society organisation CIVICUS calls on the Indian government to immediately release Bharadwaj and drop all charges against her. Since 2018, Sudha and 15 other activists, writers and lawyers have been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). It is alleged that she and the other human rights defenders conspired to incite Dalits at a public meeting which led to violence in Bhima Koregaon village in the Pune district of Maharashtra in January 2018.
Sudha Bharadwaj was initially placed under house arrest in August 2018 but in October 2018 was moved to Byculla Women’s Prison in Mumbai. There are serious concerns about the validity of evidence against her. This week a U.S. digital forensics firm raised questions about incriminating letters used to implicate Sudha and the other activists. The letters were found on an activist’s laptop which is thought to have been hacked. Sudha’s health continues to deteriorate in prison. The 59-year-old suffers from diabetes, hypertension and ischemic heart disease, making her susceptible to COVID-19 in the cramped prison. Despite underlying health issues, Bharadwaj’s pleas for bail have been quashed by the courts as the National Investigation Agency claims her condition is not serious.
Sudha Bharadwaj is one of a group of leading human rights defenders who feature in CIVICUS’s global campaign #StandAsMyWitness. The campaign urges people to call for an end to the imprisonment and harassment of human rights defenders across the world.
And, finally, there is this mail from M.K. Prasad:
I suppose you are an Indian institution without foreign funding by enemy countries and organisations. I don’t understand why you are always speak in the voice of anti-nationals. Be a patriotic Indian and help the government build a strong nation, otherwise the nation will not pardon you.
We would like M.K. Prasad to consider the possibility that journalism which critiques the government may also be in the national interest and therefore “patriotic” in the true sense.