The famously freewheeling press in the world’s biggest democracy operated largely without interference from the central government but nevertheless faced significant challenges, from the threat of violent assault to legal harassment. The dangers confronting journalists varied tremendously across regions, with those working in conflict areas or outside the major urban centers at greatest risk. With no national organization systematically tracking press freedom violations, cases involving journalists working for small media outlets rarely drew wide attention.
Subir Ghosh, a media analyst and editor of the Web site Newswatch India, told CPJ that he had come across a surprising number of unreported press freedom violations while doing his own work. “There is tremendous scope for research,” he said. “Journalists’ solidarity is just not there.”
The threat of physical violence was most acute in conflict areas such as those in the North-Eastern States, the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, and the disputed territory of Kashmir. The media in Manipur, in northeast India, faced perhaps the most severe pressures in 2007, balancing official restrictions on the publication of statements made by “unlawful organizations” against the competing demands made by more than a dozen insurgent groups involved in separatist activity or factional fighting. Local journalists said they were caught in an impossible situation, facing physical reprisal from militants on the one hand and government prosecution on the other. Twice during the year, Manipuri print media shut down their presses for days on end to protest the severe threats against them.
Deadly violence also flared in unexpected corners, such as the comparatively stable southern state of Tamil Nadu. Three media workers died in a gasoline bomb attack on the offices of the Tamil-language daily Dinakaran in the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai. The victims were identified as computer engineers M. Vinod Kumar and G. Gopinath, and security guard K. Muthuramalingam. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation took charge of the investigation, as the prime suspect behind the attack was the chief minister’s elder son, M. K. Azhagiri, according to local news reports. Dinakaran staffers said that Azhagiri was apparently angered by an opinion poll published by the paper that showed his brother had more popular support as a future leader of the state. Azhagiri, who was awaiting trial on an unrelated murder charge, denied the allegations.
In a case that drew national and international attention, a group of men who identified themselves as members of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist party, vandalized the Mumbai offices of the English-language newsmagazine Outlook. The assailants were apparently angered by the political journal’s depiction of their founder, Bal Thackeray, as a “villain” in its August 20 issue. The attack followed warnings by a Shiv Sena spokesman that there would be “repercussions across the state” if the government revived attempts to prosecute Thackeray and others indicted for their roles in the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai.
The Indian judiciary continued to use contempt-of-court provisions to silence critics and shield the institution from public scrutiny. The highest-profile contempt case involved the sentencing of four journalists from the New Delhi edition of the daily newspaper Mid-Day to four months in prison apiece for a series of articles and a political cartoon accusing a former chief justice of official misconduct. The journalists were freed on bail and filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which was due to consider the case in early 2008. India’s parliament had passed an amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act in 2006 that introduced truth as a defense. Local journalists said the Mid-Day case marked the first known test of that new provision.
Members of the press were sometimes targeted or subjected to arbitrary actions by police and government agents. In April, about 20 Indian police and two municipal officials raided the office of Mizzima, a nonprofit news agency established by a group of Burmese exiles. Reporters were refused entry and the office was sealed off with padlocks, according to a Mizzima editor who spoke with CPJ. Authorities claimed that Mizzima was illegally conducting commercial activities in a residential area, a charge denied by the organization. Mizzima was allowed to reopen after two days, following protests by national and international journalists’ organizations. It was not clear why the news agency was targeted, although one editor said his sources indicated that Indian intelligence agencies may have been behind the raid.
For better and for worse, the Indian media were obsessed with the sting. Debates swirled about the ethics of these undercover investigations to expose corruption or wrongdoing, which have become a staple of the country’s booming television news industry. Many media commentators feared that, in the absence of any effective self-regulatory framework for the broadcast media, the government would step into the breach to control content.
The most infamous case of the year involved a sting operation conducted by the Live India news channel, which on August 30 broadcast a report accusing a New Delhi teacher of pushing schoolchildren into prostitution. An angry mob besieged the school and assaulted the teacher, stripping and beating her, according to local and international news reports. Within 24 hours, she was dismissed by the Department of Education, arrested, and charged with human trafficking. And then, it turned out, the police discovered that the sting was staged, allegedly organized by a businessman to whom the teacher owed money and starring an aspiring young reporter playing the role of a victimized former student.
The Live India episode became an ugly symbol of all that was wrong with the country’s hypercompetitive news industry, with more than 40 all-news channels battling for viewers. Analysts lamented the prevalence of ?“stink journalism” and “babloid” television, and tallied the costs of the media’s loss of credibility. “The timing could not have been worse,” wrote NDTV Managing Editor Barkha Dutt, one of the country’s most prominent television journalists, in a column in the national daily Hindustan Times. “On a day when television journalists were all set to wrestle the government to the ground over its imperious and inane Broadcasting Bill, along comes our own moment of ignominy and shame.” The draft legislation proposed by the government included content controls that were bitterly opposed by the broadcast media, which began work to formulate their own set of voluntary guidelines. The issue stalled in late year amid the political storm over the India-U.S. nuclear deal, but it appeared likely to resurface.
Broadcast liberalization also led to positive developments, including the growth of community radio stations addressing the concerns of the rural poor, who still make up India’s vast majority but who are largely ignored by the mainstream media. Sevanti Ninan, editor of the media-monitoring Web site The Hoot, said that there is a kind of self-censorship in India.
“Poverty does not get reported because upwardly mobile readers are presumed to be not interested,” she wrote in an e-mail to CPJ. “Or because the market wants only upbeat stories, or because the editor or proprietor has certain holy cows that the journalists know they are expected to avoid.”
Tehelka magazine took on sacred cows across the western state of Gujarat with its undercover investigation into who orchestrated the wave of violence in 2002 that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, according to local news reports. “This was no uncontrived, unplanned, unprompted communal violence. This was a pogrom. This was genocide,” wrote reporter Ashish Khetan in his introduction to the 108-page exposé, published in the magazine’s November 3 edition. As evidence, Tehelka pointed to videotaped interviews with politicians and Hindu activists describing their roles in the violence and the involvement of the state government.
Tehelka launched the exposé even before the magazine hit the newsstands, releasing video excerpts to television channels on October 25. That same day, a senior official in the state capital of Ahmedabad, District Collector Dhananjay Dwivedi, ordered cable television operators to block news channels carrying the Tehelka story on the grounds that the footage could inflame communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, according to local media reports. Among those channels taken off the air in Gujarat were Aaj Tak, Headlines Today, CNN-IBN, and NDTV. The state election commission said it was looking into the circumstances of the ban order, and normal broadcasting resumed after two days.
A state government lawyer featured in the sting publicly resigned from his post but went on to say he had been framed by reporters, who he claimed had given him a script to read. He later registered a complaint with police accusing the Gujarat bureau chief of the television news channel Aaj Tak, which broadcast Tehelka’s video of his testimony, of “criminal breach of trust, conspiracy, and fraud.” Aaj Tak denied the allegations.
Tehelka stood by the story. The magazine, in its introduction to the report, stated that the reporter had elicited the testimonies by posing as a student researching the Hindu resurgence, “armed with nothing but two button-sized cameras.” The editors defended their use of undercover tactics, arguing that “extraordinary stories need extraordinary methods.”