Attacks on the Press 1999: India

India’s extraordinary diversity is often seen as its greatest strength, but religious, ethnic, and regional conflicts regularly pose significant challenges to the country’s democracy, and to its press. While the Indian press remains one of the most pluralistic and vibrant in the world, journalists are still vulnerable to attack. And under the leadership of the country’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many Indian journalists claim that the dangers posed by religious chauvinism and intolerance have increased, with grim consequences for independent media.

On January 1, English-language papers in the western state of Gujarat received threats from the Bajrang Dal, a right-wing extremist group linked to the BJP. In written notices, the Bajrang Dal warned newspapers of “dire consequences” if they continued to publish “exaggerated” reports of anti-Christian violence. The BJP government in Gujarat accused the media of “blowing incidents out of proportion,” but anti-Christian violence continued to spread, becoming a national crisis.

On March 8, Irfan Hussain, a cartoonist for the English-language newsmagazine Outlook, disappeared. Hussain had recently published a cartoon on the subject of anti-Christian violence. Three days later, the wife of another political cartoonist reportedly received a threatening phone call from someone claiming to be a member of the Shiv Sena, a militant Hindu nationalist organization. The caller said that the Shiv Sena had killed Hussain, and would target her husband next. Two days later, Hussain’s body was found on the shoulder of a Delhi highway. At the end of November, police announced that they had solved Hussain’s murder, arresting a seven-member gang of car thieves who confessed to the crime. CPJ believes the case warrants further investigation.

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims also ran high as nationalistic fervor mounted during the summer’s heated confronta- tion with Pakistan over Kargil, a region in Indian-occupied Kashmir that had been infiltrated by Pakistan-backed militants. Although Indian media overwhelmingly supported the military campaign, the government acted swiftly to block Pakistani points of view from reaching the Indian public. On June 2, within days of firing its first air strikes against Pakistan, India issued an official ban on the transmission of Pakistan Television (PTV) in India. The information minister instructed state governments to take action against cable operators who violated the order.

In the first week of July, the Web site of the daily Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, was blocked by a state-controlled Internet service provider. Though the undeclared war ended in mid-July, when Pakistan agreed to withdraw from Kargil, New Delhi police reportedly extended the PTV ban by two months in August.

In Kashmir itself, a rash of violent fall attacks against the Urdu-language press suggested that journalists there continue to work in an extremely threatening environment. At the end of September, unidentified attackers threw a hand grenade into the residential compound of Sofi Ghulam Mohammad, editor of the Urdu-language daily Srinagar Times. No one was injured, though the explosion shattered one of the windows in Mohamad’s home and damaged his car. The Srinagar Times is one of the oldest newspapers published in the Kashmir Valley. In the last decade, the paper has been attacked several times by various separatist groups who have accused the paper of being “pro-India.”

On October 14, suspected militants threw a grenade at the offices of the Urdu-language daily Uqab, injuring an office clerk. And on November 22, the home of Ghulam Jeelani Qadri, editor of the Urdu-language daily Afaaq, was badly damaged by the explosion of a crude bomb (classified by police as an “improvised explosive device”), which had apparently been planted near the kitchen window.

Though all of these cases remain un- solved, there is a long-standing pattern in Kashmir of separatist militants and Indian soldiers attacking journalists for their work. At least eight journalists have been killed in Kashmir since 1989, when the long-running conflict became a full-scale civil war.

During the Kargil conflict, local journalists were stymied by military restrictions on access to the conflict areas. Some complained that most of the military briefings were held in faraway Delhi, and not in Kashmir. The most serious complaint, however, was raised after the conflict. On October 12, a military court in Leh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, reportedly summoned journalists from two of India’s leading English-language weekly newsmagazines, Outlook and Frontline, to testify about the source of certain leaked official documents. The move was roundly condemned in the Indian press. The journalists –Nitin Gokhale, Ajith Pillai, and Vinod Mehta of Outlook; and Praveen Swamy of Frontline–refused to appear before the court of inquiry. No further action was taken.

Kashmir was by no means the only danger zone. Journalists working in the Northeastern States, a region riven along religious and ethnic lines by numerous militant secessionist movements, were vulnerable to government harassment and intimidation, as well as violent attack, and even murder. In February, police in Assam State arrested a local newspaper editor and accused him of having ties to the militant separatist group United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Local journalists told CPJ that Naresh Kumar Kalita was targeted because of a recent story on corruption in the state government. Kalita was imprisoned for two and a half months before police, unable to substantiate their charges in court, finally released him on bail.

In the state of Manipur, N.A. Lalruhlu, editor of the Hmar-language newspaper Shan, was shot dead on October 10. Police ascribed the killing to separatist militants, but made no further effort to determine the motive of the crime, or to apprehend the killers.

January 1
All journalists THREATENED

English-language newspapers across the northwestern state of Gujarat received written notices from the Bajrang Dal, a radical Hindu nationalist group, threatening them with “dire consequences” if they continued to publish “exaggerated” reports of anti-Christian violence. The warning came in response to intense press scrutiny of the spate of sectarian attacks in December 1998. State leaders of the ruling, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contributed to the hostile climate for the press, accusing journalists of fomenting unrest by “blowing the incidents out of proportion.”

February 10
Naresh Kumar Kalita, Agradoot IMPRISONED

In the early hours of February 10, police arrested Kalita, news editor of the Assamese-language daily Agradoot, at his home in Guwahati, Assam. Police searched the premises for about three hours before taking the journalist into custody.

Authorities stated that they had recovered weapons and ammunition from Kalita’s home, and accused the journalist of having ties with the militant separatist group United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

Journalists in Assam, however, told CPJ that the arrest seemed related to the recent publication of an article in Agradoot alleging that police vehicles were being used to transport illegal timber for the construction of the Assam chief minister’s new house. Agradoot‘s reputation for publishing articles critical of the local administration may also have encouraged authorities to order the arrest.

Kalita’s relatives claimed that at the time of the police raid, officers forced them to sign blank forms that could be used to forge confessions to be used as evidence against Kalita.

On February 25, after a judicial magistrate in Guwahati rejected Kalita’s bail petition for the second time in two weeks, CPJ wrote a letter to Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, condemning the fact that Kalita had been held for weeks without charge. CPJ also protested the police’s actions on February 15, when officers detained about 50 local journalists who had gathered outside the Guwahati Press Club to call for Kalita’s release.

On March 4, the Kamrup district magistrate ordered Kalita detained under the National Security Act, which allows for the preventive detention without trial of people deemed to have acted “in any manner prejudicial to the security of the State Government.”

On March 9, CPJ sent a letter to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, urging him to intervene in Kalita’s case and secure the journalist’s immediate release. CPJ objected to the frequent use of NSA provisions to punish journalists for their work, and noted that if the police had evidence that Kalita was involved in terrorist activities, it should be presented before an open court.

On April 29, Kalita was released on bail. His trial was still pending at year’s end.

June 2
Pakistan Television CENSORED

Soon after the launch of India’s air campaign in the Kargil region of Kashmir, Information Minister Pramod Mahajan announced that Indian cable operators were prohibited from broadcasting Pakistan Television (PTV), “which has launched a vilification campaign against India, especially in connection with the Kargil situation.” The minister added that the ban would remain in effect pending further instructions from the central government.

Mahajan instructed state governments to take action against cable operators who violated the ban. Many cable operators in Jammu and Kashmir ignored the ban, and in much of the state, citizens continued to receive PTV directly, without cable access.

In a June 4 letter to India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, CPJ characterized the ban as a direct violation of the principles expressed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

July 22
Arundhati Roy, free-lancer CENSORED, LEGAL ACTION

A three-judge panel of the Supreme Court threatened to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Roy for an essay she had published about the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam project along the Narmada River in Gujarat State. In a statement issued by the bench, the judges said that the essay seemed to be “an attempt to undermine the dignity of the court and influence the course of justice.”

The move came in response to a petition filed by the Gujarat State government claiming that there should be a ban on the “publication of various matters in different newspapers, journals, and other media touching upon the matter under consideration of the court.”

Roy’s essay originally ran as an article in the Indian weekly newsmagazines Outlook and Frontline, was excerpted in London’s Guardian newspaper, and was finally published as a short book called The Greater Common Good. Roy argued against “Big Dam” projects generally, and criticized the court for its February decision to lift a four-year stay on further construction in apparent disregard of reports that the Sardar Sarovar project would displace half a million people.

On the day of the Supreme Court’s announcement, members of the youth wing of the Gujarat State Congress Party burned several copies of The Greater Common Good. Youth Congress president Himattsinh Patel threatened that if Roy’s “irresponsible, anti-development books” were not withdrawn from circulation within 24 hours, the bookstores would “face the wrath of angry Youth Congressmen.”

The youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held its own demonstration against Roy and her book on July 24. The demonstrations and threats had their effect: virtually all bookstores pulled their copies of Roy’s book, according to CPJ’s sources. Meanwhile, the renowned writer Ashwini Bhatt told CPJ that he was unable to find a publisher willing to release his Gujarati translation of Roy’s book.

On July 28, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, urging him to condemn this effective censorship of debate on a matter of vital public interest. The letter also asked the prime minister to ensure that merchants who displayed and distributed The Greater Common Good were protected from violent reprisal.

On July 29, Chief Justice A.S. Anand, Justice S.P. Barucha, and Justice B.N. Kirpal held a hearing on the contempt issue. The court-appointed amicus curiae found that Roy and two other activists had in fact violated the court’s order prohibiting media discussion of the Sardar Sarovar case, but recommended that the court let them off with a warning.

After months of reserving judgment on the case, the court decided on October 15 that, although the “judicial process and institution cannot be permitted to be scandalized or subjected to contumacious violation in such a blatant manner in which it has been done by her,” it would not initiate contempt proceedings against Roy. “The Court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off [such] comments,” said Justice Barucha in a statement.