On 21 April, headlines from Kashmir parallelly sang out two sets of figures: “four new COVID-19 cases” and “two journalists booked by police.” And so, while the government ably juggled between its priorities, Kashmir was in a catch-22—to fight the virus or fight for free speech.
Though, to choose one’s battles had long since become second nature in the region and the men at the top knew it only too well. In the next 48 hours, the Jammu and Kashmir Police filed a spree of FIRs; two journalists were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or the UAPA, a law that seeks to keep a watch on ‘anti-nationalism’ in India. The law defines “provoking disaffection against the country” as one such ‘unlawful activity.’
Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photojournalist, was one of the two journalists charged with the UAPA. Gowhar Geelani, a senior journalist and an author, was another; the police called their social media posts were “glorifying terrorism” and “indulging in unlawful activities that prejudice the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with The Hindu, was next in line; a reported story of his was frowned upon. The police required him to travel nearly fifty kilometers towards the south, in Anantnag, amidst the pandemic for interrogation regarding his “fake news.”
History, oftentimes, does not repeat, but simply serves as a paradigm for our times. Over a century ago, when the bubonic plague hit colonial India in 1897, a journalist and Indian freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was charged with sedition for his newspaper writings that didn’t sit well with the British government.
The country’s current administration, however, tried a slightly different approach. On 24 March, a few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on television to address the nation on the three-week lockdown, he addressed a smaller crowd.
Via video conference, Mr. Modi ‘requested’ a bunch of media giants, stakeholders and editors of national publications to report “positively” on the pandemic. “Citizens need to be assured that the government is committed to countering the impact of COVID-19,” said the Prime Minister.
Elsewhere across the globe, too, regimes, both democratic and authoritarian, view the COVID-19 pandemic as a field day for propaganda and assault on people’s rights, the favourite target being freedom of speech. Besides, during any crisis, “national security” becomes a politically presentable excuse for a state to compromise on its citizens’ privacy, putting scores of journalists, and online news outlets at risk of heavy surveillance.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international body that defends the rights of the press, has been tracking assaults on free speech worldwide with #tracker_19 and has found that over thirty-eight countries so far have restricted freedom of the press amidst the pandemic. Misinformation is spreading as quickly as the virus. The world is scouring on two fronts—for factual news, alongside the cure.
From the United States’ Donald Trump to Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro, world leaders have basked in biased news, while free and true journalism is increasingly viewed as a threat.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was quick to pass a set of authoritarian laws on 31 March in the guise of “emergency measures during COVID-19.” One such ruling assigns “a five-year prison sentence for spreading fake news” while the power to determine authenticity lies with his own administration.
Under the smokescreen of COVID-19, China has further unleashed a brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, arresting fifteen prominent activists on 18 April.
India, however, was ahead of its neighbor-state in the race to curb dissent. On 1 April, two student-activists from Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, were arrested, and a third charged with the UAPA, for taking part in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests that have gripped the country since December, last year.
And that’s not it. Since the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown, over a dozen more activists and protestors—mostly Muslims, have been arrested for alleged involvement in the north-east Delhi communal violence that erupted in February. Or in New Delhi, Aligarh, and Mumbai. The government also charged the chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission under sedition for a Facebook post.
It is a strange and ironic time to celebrate the World Freedom of Press Day today. Although, the pandemic demands the right to free speech more than ever. As we inch towards a changing world, these times will determine the state of free speech for the future—and safeguard it, we must. As English writer Evelyn Hall put it, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”