Modi govt’s message for 2024, with blocking orders and an OCI cancellation

It only seems interested in ensuring the narrative it has endorsed is amplified.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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The Narendra Modi government hates the concept of ranking countries on a press freedom index, an exercise that Reporters Without Borders undertakes each year. The last such ranking, in 2023, placed India at 161 out of 180 countries, below others in our region, including Pakistan (150), Nepal (95), Sri Lanka (135) and Bhutan (90). Only Bangladesh has the distinction of being two notches lower at 163.

So, in 2024, will India’s ranking in this index sink further?

Going by the government’s actions since the beginning of this year, there is more than a good chance that it will.

On February 9, Caravan magazine received a notice from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry about an article it had published on February 1 titled, “Screams from the Army post”.  It was given two days to respond. The magazine did respond but the ministry was not satisfied. On February 11, a meeting on Zoom between representatives of the ministry and Caravan was held. Later, on the same day, the magazine received a notice that it must take down this article within 24 hours.

What was the offending article, that has now been taken down, about? It was a detailed story written by Jatinder Kaur Tur on allegations of torture by the Indian armed forces against civilians from Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir in December 2023. Three of the 25 men picked up for questioning died in army custody.

The government used Section 69A of the IT Act, a section that has been challenged in several high courts, to justify its action. The section permits the government to take down any content that it concludes threatens the “sovereignty, integrity, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to the above”.

The government’s concerns about certain types of information coming out extends not just to platforms and publications located within India, but even those outside. Thus, in January, the Hate Tracker, a platform that documents incidents of hate speech and hate crimes in India, but is located outside the country, was blocked in India. This report in Article 14 sets out the details. The reason? The same as that used for the Caravan article under Section 69A.

The government has also demonstrated its inability to accept the right of foreign journalists based in India to report freely what they see and hear. On February 16, Vanessa Dougnac, a French journalist who has lived and worked in India for 25 years, was told she would have to leave the country. Her Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status was withdrawn. She was told that her work was “inimical to the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of India and to the interests of the general public”.

In a statement before she left, Dougnac said: “Today, I am unable to work and have been unfairly accused of prejudicing the interests of the state. It has become clear that I cannot keep living in India and earning my livelihood. I am fighting these accusations before the competent forums, and I have full faith in the legal process. But I can’t afford to wait for its outcome. The proceedings with respect to my OCI status have shattered me, especially now that I see them as part of a wider effort by the Government of India to curb dissent from the OCI community.” 

As one can imagine, a foreign correspondent being asked to leave on dodgy grounds has not gone unnoticed around the world. In a strong and explicit statement, RSF stated:

“Forcing a seasoned professional journalist to leave India after she had been based there for two decades reveals a very dark and deplorable image of what press freedom has become under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With two months to go to general elections, the vice is tightening on foreign correspondents who try to cover India in a professional manner. We condemn the unacceptable way Vanessa Dougnac has been treated and the use of absurd accusations as a subterfuge to gag and intimidate outspoken reporters. The Indian authorities must guarantee journalists’ safety and freedom to work.”

The latest action of the government is an order sent to X on February 19 asking it to take down several accounts. Coincidentally, most of these are independent journalists using social media to report on the ongoing farmers’ agitation. These accounts provide us with detailed news about the agitation, about the way the farmers have had to face tear gas dropped by drones and rubber bullets fired by the security forces standing behind concrete barricades to prevent them from marching to Delhi. On February 21, the first death of one of these farmers – 24-year-old Shubhkaran Singh – from a bullet injury was reported.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, one of the accounts taken down is that of independent journalist Mandeep Punia and his platform Gaon Savera. People might have forgotten that Punia was central to the reporting of the previous farmers agitation in 2021. In this article he wrote for Outlook magazine in 2021, he describes his arrest by the police, and the stories he heard and reported during those months.

Although X has complied with the government’s orders, as it has done in the past, this time it has issued the following statement: “In compliance with the orders, we will withhold these posts and accounts in India alone; however, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts.”

You might think one article, one foreign journalist being expelled, and a few social media accounts being taken down does not represent any real threat to freedom of the press in India. But it does.

 What these three incidents in the first two months of 2024 illustrate is the intent of this government. Clearly, it is determined to do whatever it takes to suppress critical independent reporting.

It does not care what international groups like RSF think. It does not care where India is ranked in a press freedom index. It is only interested in ensuring that the narrative that it has endorsed about what is happening anywhere in this country, which is dutifully amplified by mainstream TV, is the one that all media should echo. Those who refuse, do so at their own risk.

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