Indian press freedom abuses signal dark times for world's largest democracy

Indian press freedom abuses signal dark times for world's largest democracy
Comment: New Delhi's efforts to prevent the international community's prying eyes have seen journalists come under increasing threat, writes CJ Werleman.
6 min read
03 Oct, 2019
Journalists protest after authorities barred them from India's 70th Republic Day parade in Kashmir [Getty]

Kashmir has now been under an Indian military imposed curfew and communications blackout since New Delhi revoked Article 370 of its constitution on 5 August, stripping the disputed territory of its semi-autonomous status.

The BJP-led Indian government's objective is clear: To make Kashmir and its people invisible to the rest of the world as it carries out its long held objective of changing the reality on the ground to fit with with the Hindu nationalists' goals of making Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) and the rest of the country, a land exclusively for Hindus.

As part of New Delhi's effort to prevent the international community's prying eyes from bearing witness to its human rights violations in Kashmir, journalists have come under increasing threat from the Indian security forces and their proxies, with reports emerging of journalists being beaten, harassed and denied access to certain areas in the territory, in order to prevent their stories being heard by a global audience.

"The very means of communication is down. People are locked up and streets are deserted," a 28-year-old Kashmiri journalist told Jacobin magazine. "These biased Indian television channels must have made a lot of money these days, you know what I mean... I fail to understand how much BJP must be spending per hour on Kashmir right now. They have to pay so many people to keep us under lockdown."

It's also becoming clear that New Delhi is now banning targeted international journalists from entering India out of fear the purpose of their visit is to criticise the Modi-led government's repressive measures in Kashmir.

When I spoke with legendary human rights photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was nominee for Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year, he told me how he was denied a visa on 5 September, after applying for it at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. He had been hoping to attend an art festival organised by the British Council in Delhi.

Alam, who has traveled to India on many occasions in the past, has good reason to believe it was his criticism of India's human rights violations in Kashmir that has led to what seems to be at the very least a temporary ban from entering the country.

New Delhi is now banning targeted international journalists from entering India

"I have been posting about Kashmir recently [on social media], and it's been virulent on the other side [India]. Every time I've said something about Kashmir or [Indian Prime Minister] Modi, a whole lot of attacks and threats accuse me of hating India. It's something that's not happened to me before," he told me.

If you have ever seen a photo published in one of the world's major news publications that captures the lives and experiences of those in Bangladesh or India, then it's likely you've seen Alam's work.

For more than four decades, Alam has used his camera to document and expose injustices and human rights violations within his home country and abroad. He has brought into focus the Bangladeshi people's contempt for the corrupt and inept General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who was removed from office in 1990. He has also documented the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the country's current leader and longest serving prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, whose administration has been widely accused of turning Bangladesh into a repressive, de-facto one-party state.

Award-winning photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam was denied a visa to India [Getty]

When students led peaceful protests against Bangladesh's government in July and August of 2018 for its refusal to address the country's spiking traffic fatalities, which followed the deaths of two high-school students who were struck by a bus driven by an unlicensed driver, Alam was in Dhaka to capture the protesters' righteous and justifiable demands for road traffic reforms.

The government responded by carrying out a violent crackdown on protesters and cutting internet services. On the seventh day of the protests, Alam was arrested and detained by authorities, after criticising the government's violent response in an interview he gave to Al Jazeera.

"I was at home uploading stuff [photos he had taken at the protests], I was on my own, the doorbell rang, I opened the door, and suddenly there was this large number of men who rushed in," Alam told me. "They blindfolded me, took me away, and that night I was tortured."

India has not solved the murder of a single journalist in the course of the past decade

Alam described how Bangladeshi authorities offered him a "deal," telling him that he was free to go home on the proviso he never criticise the government again. Alam refused their offer and spent the next 100 days in prison.

Today, Alam is out on bail, awaiting a trial and verdict that could land him back in prison for up to 14 years on the charge of spreading propaganda against the government under the guidelines of an arcane law designed to persecute journalists and silence critics of the government.

"The world over, journalism is under threat," Alam said in an interview Alam with Time.

"This is the worst I remember it having ever been for journalists. Even when we were under Pakistani rule, when there was genocide going on in the country, you were still not so scared then as you are today," Alam told me.

"Today, you just get disappeared. You get killed. While I was in jail, I met a number of people who said they were in jail because they had liked or shared one of my social media posts. That's how ridiculous it has become."

When I asked Alam whether New Delhi's effort to block him from re-entering the country reflected badly on India's claims to being a secular democracy, he replied, "It's no longer a secular democracy. It was in the past and for a long time we looked at India as a democracy we could respect but the democratic structure that held it together is no longer there."

Read more: Pakistan's Khan warns of Kashmir 'bloodbath' amid Indian crackdown

Notably, India has dropped to rank 140 out of 180 countries when it comes to freedom of the press. In fact, the International Federation of Journalists has listed India the eighth deadliest country for journalists, with the Committee to Protect Journalists observing India has not solved the murder of a single journalist in the course of the past decade.

Alam also laments the fact that mainstream media in India has devolved into carrying out public relations for the government, telling me, "This is very worrying," and that the public is being told only what the current government wants the public to know.

For now, Alam awaits his day in court, subject to ongoing appeals. What is already clear, however, is that journalists throughout the democratic world, particularly in Asia, are being persecuted to the brink of extinction.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.