New Delhi: The US State department’s latest human rights report has stated that there have been several instances of critical media outlets being “pressured or harassed” by the Indian government or actors close to it.
Releasing the 2020 Human Rights Report on Tuesday, March 30, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken reiterated that President Joseph Biden was committed to putting “human rights back at the centre of American policy”.
Stating that standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests, Blinken noted that the Biden-Harris administration would speak against “human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners”.
In the 68-page chapter on India, the report observes that despite government efforts to address abuses, “lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity”.
Regarding freedom of media, the report said that while the government “generally respected” this right, there were several instances in which the “government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling”.
The report quoted extensively from the think tank Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 document, which noted that the Indian government has often been silent when it came to dire attacks on free speech.
“The report stated authorities used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in media. In some instances, the government reportedly withheld public-sector advertising from media outlets that criticised the government, causing some outlets to practice self-censorship. The report highlighted Hindu nationalist campaigns discouraging “anti-national” forms of speech as exacerbating self-censorship,” the US report says.
The US report also mentioned the case filed by Uttar Pradesh police against The Wire‘s founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, for mentioning in a tweet that Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath had said that a religious gathering held during the COVID-19 lockdown would be protected by a deity.
Although Varadarajan issued a correction shortly afterwards (it was not Adityanath who had said this), the report observed that the complaint was filed under various sections of the Information Technology Act, Indian Penal Code, Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act.
Among the slew of examples included in the report was that of the sedition case filed against the owner of a Gujarati news website, Face the Nation, Dhaval Patel, for publishing a report that said the Gujarat chief minister, Vijay Rupani, may be replaced in May 2020. The Gujarat high court quashed the case after Patel issued an “unconditional apology” in November last year.
The state department report said that press freedom had declined during the last year in India. “There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, at both the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement,” it said.
The report also mentioned the case filed against the executive editor of Scroll.in, Supriya Sharma for a report filed from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency Varanasi on the effects of the lockdown. The Uttar Pradesh police had booked Sharma under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Indian Penal Code. The Allahabad high court granted Sharma protection from immediate arrest but has allowed the investigation to continue.
Both Scroll.in and human rights defenders had asserted that the police case was an attempt to silence independent journalism. “According to reports, at least 55 journalists and editors were arrested or booked for reporting on the COVID-19 lockdown,” the report noted.
The report also noted that the police rarely identified suspects involved in killing journalists and members of media organisations.
The report also took cognisance of online and mobile harassment of journalists, especially of women reporters. It specifically mentioned the online trolling of journalist Rana Ayyub, who also received death threats.
On Kashmir, the US state department said that the Indian government took steps to restore normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir by gradually lifting security and communication restrictions which have been in place since August 2019.
The report also cited a number of cases of killings, enforced disappearances by government and non-government sources in the conflict-prone Union Territory. There were also observations of the high restrictions on media freedom in Kashmir, with cases frequently filed against journalists.
The Indian government has usually dismissed critical reports on human rights situation, claiming that it was interference in India’s internal affairs and that there were institutions to address any grievances.
When Freedom House had downgraded India to a “partly free” country in its 2021 report, India had lashed out it was “misleading, incorrect and misplaced”.