In Indian democracy, free speech is at risk

Kashmiri journalists sit during a protest in Srinagar, India, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011. The protest was against alleged recent attacks and harassment of journalists by the Jammu Kashmir police in Srinagar. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

At 2 a.m. on February 9, the Indian government declared a curfew in Indian-controlled Kashmir.A few hours later, Kashmiri residents understood why: New Delhi had decided to execute Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted in a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament.

Guru’s hanging was the final act of a controversial case that India knew could spark street protests by many Kashmiris, who claimed charges against Guru were weak, and that he was used as a scapegoat. So once news of the hanging and the strict curfew—which forbade residents from even stepping out of their homes—was delivered by radio, television, and the Internet, New Delhi cut off all cable news and Internet service to the disputed Himalayan territory.

“In the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s hanging, the government put an unofficial gag on media,” said Shujaat Bukhari, Editor in Chief of Rising Kashmir. “We were asked by police—though informally—not to publish our newspapers.”

A few papers however, did not take the “order” seriously, and had to deal with the consequences. Showkat Motta, Editor of Kashmir Reader, said copies of his newspaper were seized in a police raid soon after they were printed.

The communications blackout remained in place for four days.

India’s near total clampdown on the Kashmiri press and communications with the outside world might seem at odds with its standing as the world’s largest democracy. In fact, though it’s little noticed, India routinely ranks low on international press freedom indices. And journalists in Kashmir are among the most frequent targets of the Indian government’s press freedom attacks.

“We were dealing with a week under curfew, without any passes, and severe restrictions on a journalist’s movement,” said Parvaiz Bukhari, a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who was forced to remain at home during the curfew without access to the Internet, thus delaying any reporting on the situation by a few days.

Claimed by both India and Pakistan, Kashmir has been a flashpoint for over 60 years; tensions between Indian armed forces and Kashmiris have led to more than 70,000 civilian deaths in Kashmir, according to human rights organizations. Curfews and media bans like the one in February are not unusual. Many Kashmiris complain that New Delhi represses their basic rights, so India’s national holidays tend to be seen in Kashmir as a time to protest – not celebrate. New Delhi reacts with frequent curfews and media bans, like the one in the wake of the February hanging of Afzal Guru.

India’s record in Kashmir helps explain its low rankings by press freedom advocates, but such abuses are frequent in India. The latest World Press Freedom Index released by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders placed India 140th of 179 countries, its lowest ranking in a decade, due to increasing impunity for violence against journalists and growing Internet censorship. Last year, five journalists were killed because of their work in India, six media companies reported arson attacks, and more than three dozen other cases of threats or assault were recorded in the 2012 Free Speech Report from India’s media watch group The Hoot.

“When we launched our Free Speech Tracker in 2010, even we didn’t expect to record as many violations as we are today,” said Geeta Seshu, who works with The Hoot. “But the general climate is one where the freedom we do enjoy and have gotten used to is in peril.”

Press freedom advocates say that India’s poor record gets little international scrutiny because it is overshadowed by the country’s image as one of the world’s emerging economies. Though growth over the past year dropped to five percent, the lowest in a decade, economists predict a rebound in 2013, keeping India in place as Asia’s third biggest economy, according to a Bloomberg News survey.

And at a time when print media in most of the world are reporting ongoing economic decline, circulation and ad revenues continue to rise at Indian newspapers, creating a global perception that the country’s media are thriving.

Newspapers are sold at a very low price in India, and so they depend more on advertising revenue. “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business,” said Samir Jain, vice chairman of Times of India newspaper, in a New Yorker interview last year. The Times boasts the largest circulation of any English-language newspaper in the world—4,300,000—but Jain says 90 percent of his paper’s revenue comes from advertising.

Local Kashmiri photographers Yawar Nazir, left and Showkat Shafi wait for treatment after they were assaulted by police and paramilitary forces during a protest in Srinagar, India, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

Seshu says that Indian media organizations have a poor record of taking up cases of attacks on press freedom, perhaps due to “competition or indifference,” and because many media organizations have close ties with business and politics. “Both are sources of aggression against press freedom,” she said, and so in many instances, Indian media organizations are reluctant to criticize their friends in politics who repress them.

Some editors and publishers exacerbate the press freedom situation by failing to defend their own journalists, she said. “In the case of journalist deaths, media houses in India have shrugged responsibility and even denied that journalists were employed by them, despite documentary evidence to the contrary,” she said.

In 2012, Rajesh Mishra was the first journalist reported to have been killed in India in four years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ said his death apparently came in retaliation for reporting on corruption in local schools in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Indian police arrested at least six people in connection with his killing, but there have still been no convictions.

The Indian government’s increasing willingness to censor content on the Internet also has sent its free speech and press ratings plummeting.  The Google Transparency Report ranked India second to the U.S. in demanding removal of online content, with 2319 requests in the first half of 2012. In one well-publicized case last November, two girls from Maharashtra were arrested after one of them posted a Facebook comment criticizing a government transportation shutdown that brought Mumbai and surrounding areas to a standstill for almost two days. She was arrested, along with a friend who ‘liked’ the comment, though both were released after public outcry.

In Kashmir, several youth were arrested for ‘controversial’ Facebook status updates in 2010 as well.They were initially charged under the same Information Technology Act, which bans speech on the Internet that causes “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.” Shortly after, they were charged for being a threat to peace and public property under the Public Safety Act, a preventive law under which an individual’s detention can continue up to two years without trial.

Pranesh Prakash, director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, says the controversial Information Technology Act, drafted in 2008, is so sweeping and vague that most of India’s Internet users could be imprisoned under its language.

“I have 3,500 followers on Twitter, and I’m pretty sure I annoy 100 of them on a daily basis,” he said.

In the weeks since India’s execution of Afzal Guru, Kashmir’s media has returned to business as usual—which, in this heavily militarized, powder keg state means daily trying to strike a balance between direct intervention from the government and self-censorship.

Indian-controlled Kashmir is consistently ranked by press freedom and human rights groups as having one of the highest numbers of attacks on journalists and media freedom in India. Text messages on prepaid cell phones have been banned since 2010; the Indian government says texts are used to spread rumors that lead to protests. Cell phone services are blocked every year in the region on Indian national holidays. In October 2012, the Indian government blocked access to Facebook and YouTube, to “prevent access to the controversial anti-Islam video” that insulted Islam’s prophet Muhammad, and was sparking protests in parts of the Muslim world.

A few weeks prior to this ban, Azhar Qadri, a correspondent for The Tribune newspaper, was assaulted by police while covering a peaceful student protest outside a college in Srinagar.

“When I asked the police officer why I was being assaulted, he responded with more assaults,” said Qadri. “When I told him I am a journalist doing my job, he asked his armed guards to arrest me and take me to the police station.”

Qadri eventually was released, with no explanation, after his phone, diaries and other possessions were confiscated. Such instances are common experiences, according to journalists in Kashmir.

They are also a factor in India’s drop to 140th place on Reporters Without BordersPress Freedom Index.

In 2012, India was placed at 131 on the same index, in 2010, it was at 122, and the year before, it was at 105.

“That steady decline in press freedom,” said Sandip Roy, culture editor at FirstPost.com, “should be a wakeup call for India.”