The arrest of Newsclick editor Prabir Purkayastha and the head of the portal’s HR department, Amit Chakravarty on terrorism charges has pushed the Modi government’s attack on independent journalism on to an entirely new plane.
The arrests came on the evening of October 3, after dramatic swoop downs and ‘raids’ on homes early in the morning. Electronic devices – laptops and telephones – of dozens of journalists were seized by the police. Those targeted included some who have just had fleeting contact with the news portal as occasional contributors. Authors, journalists, satirists, historians and scientists associated with Newsclick were all raided in a clear attempt to show them where unbridled power lay. No proper seizure memos or hash values for the devices were given. It was a brute exercise of power. The intent appeared to be to assert authority and control, and finally a lock was placed at the news portal’s office. A total of 46 persons were questioned by Delhi Police’s special cell.
It has been a dark year in India for those who stand for a free press. The World Press Freedom Index ranks India at 161, in the bottom twenty of the 180 countries whose status it assesses. The fall has been immense and sharp since 2015. India is also the global internet shutdown capital, with by far the highest number of internet closures per year amongst all democracies. India has displayed record democratic backsliding, and the state of the press is a vital component of the deterioration. Unless he means it ironically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi still never fails to talk about ‘Mother of Democracy’ with a straight face.
The attempt to tighten the noose around digital and independent media, the absence of a single press conference by the prime minister for nearly a decade, a withering Right to Information regime and the growing official culture of opacity has had a corrosive effect on our democracy. In contrast, the free run that purveyors of hate – pretending to be TV news channels – have despite Supreme Court strictures on hate speech, is poisoning the public sphere and enabling violence in society.
The role of a free press in a democracy cannot be overstated. It is to ensure that the government of the day is always under scrutiny, is answerable and accountable to the people who elect it. It is also to provide good and authentic information to citizens. In short, the quality of a country’s media ends up deciding how informed its citizens are and how good the quality of its democracy is. Journalism is about speaking truth to power, and no democracy can survive if it needs superheroes to choose that vocation. As Bertolt Brecht reminded us, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero! No, …unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
‘Raiding’ an entire media organisation and snatching the electronic devices of journalists without due process is a bad omen for a free press but a worse signal for the continuation of democracy. All Indians should be alarmed about what independent journalists are enduring under an increasingly authoritarian dispensation because the ensuing darkness will eventually cast its shadow across their threshold too. The time for worry and concern is long over. If you can’t hear the alarm bells ringing loudly, you are either deaf – or pretending to be so.