Attacks on the Press 2003: India

Although India is the world's largest democracy, with a diverse and expanding media, government authorities remained sensitive to criticism in the press in 2003. Officials harassed journalists through lawsuits, using restrictive laws governing criminal defamation, contempt of court, and national security to silence reporters' accounts of corruption. Meanwhile, violence in the disputed state of Kashmir continued to endanger journalists.

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the respected English-language daily The Hindu faced a slew of lawsuits from the state's chief minister, a former actress known by her first name, Jayalalitha. In April, the minister expelled 43 opposition members from the state legislature and briefly jailed them. When The Hindu ran two articles and an editorial lambasting her actions, Jayalalitha responded by filing as many as 17 separate criminal defamation cases against The Hindu, according to the paper's editor, Narasimhan Ram, known as N. Ram. Another editor and the publisher are named in all the cases, along with eight staff members who are cited in different individual cases against the paper. If they are convicted, the journalists face up to 17 two-year sentences each, which could be served either concurrently or consecutively.

Further pressuring the paper, on November 7, the Tamil Nadu legislature ordered The Hindu's five senior editors, as well as an editor from the Tamil-language newspaper Murasoli, jailed for 15 days each. The lawmakers passed a resolution formally charging the journalists with breach of privilege and "gross contempt" of the legislature because their articles "cast a slur on the chief minister's actions." India's Supreme Court halted the order on November 10, but the defamation cases against The Hindu continued. On December 15, The Hindu mounted a legal challenge against the criminal defamation law in the Supreme Court, arguing that the law violates the free speech provisions in the Indian Constitution. By year's end, Jayalalitha had filed three additional criminal defamation cases against The Hindu.

In the southeastern state of Karnataka, 30 journalists from 11 newspapers were charged on March 17 with contempt of court for reporting on an alleged sex scandal that occurred in November 2002 involving three judges from the state's High Court. Although the Karnataka High Court ruled on October 23 that each journalist would be tried separately, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended proceedings against the journalists on November 18.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which is designed to protect India's national security, was enacted in April 2002. The law allows police to demand any information they believe could help to curb terrorism, and local journalists remain concerned that it could infringe on their rights. Although the act was meant specifically to fight Islamic militants in areas like Kashmir, it has mainly been used in other states, including Tamil Nadu. R.R. Gopal, editor of the Tamil-language magazine Nakkheeran, became the first journalist to be arrested under POTA on April 11, 2003, when he was accused of aiding a banned Tamil militant group because he allegedly possessed some of the group's leaflets at the time of his arrest. Gopal denies the charges and accuses Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha of trying to punish him for his articles exposing corruption in her administration. The Madras High Court ordered Gopal released on bail on December 20. A Judicial Committee is scheduled to meet in January 2004 to review the legality of the Tamil Nadu government's use of POTA against Gopal.

On July 27, 2003, a group of journalists from the now defunct online news agency Tehelka.com were charged under the Official Secrets Act, a draconian, colonial-era law, for possessing "secret documents" deemed harmful to the state. The charges stemmed from a story titled "Are Dutch Innocent?" that ran on the Web site on October 9, 2000. India's Home Ministry claimed that the story contained information from secret government file number 11011/40/99, titled "Dutch Interest in India's Fringe Politics," which included the minutes of a confidential government meeting with the Dutch ambassador. The government alleged that Tehelka.com reprinted the minutes almost verbatim from the secret file. At year's end, the case against the Web site had not been heard in court. That was not the first time Indian officials had targeted Tehelka.com. In 2001, the site made headlines when it obtained a video of senior politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accepting bribes. Revenge from officials came in 2002, when two journalists from the site were arrested and later released on bail.

Iftikhar Gilani, the New Delhi bureau chief for the Jammu-based newspaper Kashmir Times, was also charged under the Official Secrets Act. He was arrested in June 2002 and jailed for seven months for allegedly possessing classified documents. The documents in Gilani's possession, which were about military operations, were actually readily available to the public on the Internet. The charges against him were eventually dropped, and he was released on January 13, 2003.

Despite peace efforts in Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim, violence increased in the disputed territory. Journalists have long been vulnerable to attack, and 2003 was no exception. In April, when the prime ministers of India and Pakistan made a conditional agreement to hold peace talks, a surge of violence killed at least 30 people in 10 days. On April 26, separatist militants detonated a car bomb in front of the offices of the state broadcasters Doordarshan Television and Radio Kashmir, which the militants view as mouthpieces for the Indian government. Five people, including three separatist gunmen and two security guards, were killed in an ensuing gunfight. Four days later, on April 29, a local news service reported a threat from the militant group Tehrik-ul-Mujahideen, which accuses local journalists of being on the payroll of Indian intelligence agencies. The militants wrote, "We inform such journalists that they will be killed if they fail to mend their ways."

Two journalists were killed in India in 2003, one of them in Kashmir. On January 31, Parvaz Mohammed Sultan, editor of the independent wire service News and Feature Alliance (NAFA), based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir State, was shot and killed at his office by unidentified gunmen. Sultan's colleagues believe that he was targeted because of his work, although he had received no known threats before his killing and no one has claimed responsibility for the murder. Wire services like NAFA are frequently under pressure from both sides of the conflict. Since the fighting in Kashmir erupted into a civil war in 1989, ten journalists have been killed there, according to CPJ research. No one has been brought to justice in any of these cases.

The other journalist killed in India in 2003, Parmanand Goyal, was shot dead in his home north of the capital, Delhi. The Tribune newspaper reported that Goyal's son claims to have overheard men threatening his father to stop writing about a local political figure and the police, but the motive behind the murder has not yet been determined.

The deep-rooted tensions between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority populations are exploited by local leaders for political gain. In February 2002, sectarian riots swept through the western state of Gujarat and killed hundreds, but the attacks remained a controversial subject for the Indian media in 2003. Journalists, diplomats, and human rights groups have reported that much of the violence was actually organized and encouraged by political leaders and groups associated with the ruling BJP. Journalists who covered the violence were vulnerable to attack by the unruly mobs, as well as to harassment and assault by police who did not want evidence of their complicity in the attacks publicized.

In 2003, officials continued their efforts to silence stories about the riots. In March, India's Central Board of Film Certification, which has the authority to alter or ban movies it deems controversial, censored a Hindu-language documentary called "Aakrosh" (Cry of Anguish), which featured interviews with survivors of the communal violence. In the letter denying certification to the film's producers, the board wrote that "the film depicts violence and reminds the people about the Gujarat riots last year. It shows the Government and Police in a bad light. The overall impact of the film is negative as it leads to communal hatred."

With its population of 1 billion people and low literacy rate, India increasingly gets its news from a wide variety of satellite and cable television channels. According to the ratings service TAM Media Research, India's television news audience has grown 80 percent in the last two years. As many as six new 24-hour cable news channels were scheduled to be on the air by the end of 2003, in addition to the existing news channels TV Today, NDTV, BBC, and CNN. The Indian government still controls most nonsatellite television and radio stations through the public broadcaster Prasar Bharati.

International media companies, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, covet access to India's expanding news audience. The Hong Kong-based Star Group, a subsidiary of News Corporation and Asia's largest broadcaster, was planning to launch its own satellite news channel, Star News, in India in April. But on March 18, the Cabinet voted to tighten restrictions on foreign access to news channels, capping ownership at 26 percent. By year's end, Indian officials had worked out a deal to facilitate the channel's launch after Star News partnered with an Indian company, but the Information and Broadcasting Ministry continued to delay final approval for the project.

March 11, 2004 12:04 PM ET |

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