Freedom of speech is a slippery slope in India. Some get away with inciting mobs to violence, others are harassed even while they function well within constitutional limits.
Two weeks back, the executive editor of Scroll.in, Supriya Sharma, was booked by the Uttar Pradesh police on a complaint by a Dalit woman she interviewed for a story titled ‘In Varanasi village adopted by Prime Minister Modi, people went hungry during the lockdown’.
The complainant, Mala Devi, has alleged the journalist had mocked her poverty and caste by falsely reporting that her family went hungry during the lockdown and that the report had caused her mental hurt and loss of prestige. Scroll.in has said in a statement that her statements were reported accurately.
Media professions often face lawsuits where charges are prima facie untenable. The aim of these lawsuits, commonly referred to as SLAPP- or Strategic lawsuit against public participation- is to silence critics by burdening them with the financial and psychological cost of defending themselves in a lawsuit that might go on for years.
In Sharma’s case, she has been booked under S. 269 (acting in a manner which leads to the spread of infection of any disease dangerous to life) and 501 (printing any matter known to be defamatory) of the Indian Penal Code. Surprisingly, she has also been booked under provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act relating to garlanding with footwear or parading naked or semi-naked an SC/ST and intentionally insulting or intimidating with intent to humiliate an SC/ST in public.
PUCL has called Sharma “most recent victim of state attack on the media”. In fact, a report by Rights and Risks Analysis Group reads, “A total of at least 55 journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show causes notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats for reportage on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown from 25 March to 31 May 2020”.
An incident which came to light after this report was published was the killing of Kanpur based journalist Shubham Mani Tripathi in broad daylight. He was shot while riding a motorcycle, allegedly by the sand-mafia, whose activities he had documented extensively. A few days before the incident, he had informed the police of the threat to his life.
While parts of the press behave irresponsibly every so often, reporting by the press has led to the deserved embarrassment to many. After Tehalka conducted Operation West End in 2001 to uncover the murky world of defence deals, the then Defence Minister George Fernandes had to resign. In the Jessica Lal murder case, the Delhi HC directed suo moto reinvestigation after reports revealed a shoddy trial and manipulation of witnesses. The Wire’s reporting revealed last month how the Central Government was in process of procuring 5,000 substandard ventilators from a Rajkot firm which has close connections with the ruling party.
Journalists and their organisations face immense pressures today. Government advertising and access are withdrawn if one doesn’t toe the line, large-scale trolling attacks are orchestrated by online armies and tax investigations are opened up out of the blue. But a free press benefits all but the oppressor. Without it, the public would not have been able to communicate to the state its demands for justice. It prevents the government of the day from residing in a cloud of illusion, far away from the ground. And because it benefits all, all must stand up for it.