A raid by the Delhi Police on October 3 on the residences of around 50 employees/journalists of a news website Newsclick countrywide was loaded with a larger message. That the press should not opine, ask questions of the powers that be, and that the state can round up anyone & everyone frivolously with the ultimate charge of being antinational and slap a UAPA.
In these times when India has fallen to the lowest rank in press freedom, 161 in 180 countries, the reasons are there to see. Last few years there have been threats and raids on news channels and digital news platforms including independent newspersons. (for their views and analysis of issues that concern the system and the government.) NDTV was raided in 2017 and years after it saw its end. Similarly Newsclick was earlier too raided and inquired for its financial dealings. This time they came with another reason…anti nationalism. The use of coersion is a new low to muzzle media freedom in these times.
Delhi police reached Newsclick employees homes in the early morning, confiscated their phones, laptops and other gadgets, which very much fall into the domain of professional use, questioned that if they had covered the Delhi Riots, or the NRC protests or Shahin Bagh, and then took a few of them to the police station. The Editor Probir Purkayasta and its HR Head were taken into police custody and others left to go home with the suggestion that divulging the interrogation will only not work in their favour. Newsclick has been charged allegedly for having taken investments from China and has taken funds to spread anti India propaganda. No allegations have been proved since. Newsclick is one of the few platforms that has been openly questioning the government of its actions and asking for accountability in its schemes and programmes. Yes, its the duty of a journalist to cover all sorts of happenings wherever to report objectively as is seen. And to that end a phone, a camera, a laptop and other supporting gadgets are his/her professional tools.
Press Clubs across the nation including Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, Bangalore issued statements condemning the treatment meted out to journalist. A letter was written to the Chief Justice of India to intervene seeking action against assault on freedom of expression that is inherent to journalism. A peaceful protest was held at Press Club of India to affirm solidarity with journalists.
Leading minds of the country including lawyers, senior journalists, opposition leaders have voiced their concern comparing the times to undeclared emergency. In 1976 when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, press was the first bastion to fall apart. Although a large section of it lost no time in towing the establishment’s line. But at least it was a declared emergency. These times are dreadful. Anyone can be picked up anytime, even a twitter post of 5 years back can be reason good enough for the government to put one behind bars. Journalists, satirist, comedians, writers, activitist are languishing in jail for years without being proved guilty. Social media is full of toxic trolls. Party dedicated IT cells are working as the third eye. Are we being turned into a surveillance state!
If an unverified sentence in a news report in a foreign newspaper can be taken as reason enough for framing charges against a news organization in India the intentions are clear enough. In that case a news can be planted anywhere to declare anybody an anti national.
Press Freedom across the globe has taken a hit. In times of unbridled social media and open source information, governments are at liberty to curtail freedom of expression. In the name of democracy, autocracies are emerging as a new norm. To remain in power governments ensure that the narrative is in their favor. And to that purpose, with law & order and all agencies in their hands its not too difficult to throttle voices of reason. The basic foundation of a democracy is freedom of expression and so freedom of press. Majority of popular media has turned approvers (bootlickers) in awe of the system. Media has become a business. Big houses are owned by capitalists who employ journalists who see the fire of journalism in them die a slow death for not being able to report stories objectively and unbiased. That was when independent journalism is born.
Many a protests have been held in last few years to fight for freedom of expression in New Delhi, from where the power of the State eminates. Ironically Press Club of India is at the very next door of the newly built sprawling Parliament building. As the general elections 2024 come by it will be interesting to watch the state of press freedom. If Newsclick was a trailer, we ll keep our fingers crossed.