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Election officials open a seal on a voting machine at a counting centre in Srinagar in May 2019. CPJ met with journalists across India to discuss the safety challenges of covering India's elections. (AFP/Tauseef Mustafa)

Results of India's election climate for journalist safety are in

By Kunal Majumder/CPJ India Correspondent on May 23, 2019 3:47 PM ET

Journalists across India are at risk of physical and digital attack in retaliation for their reporting. And during election campaigns, these dangers can increase. As the country went to the polls in recent weeks, CPJ's India correspondent Kunal Majumder traveled to Guwahati, Imphal, Agartala, Raipur, Bijapur, and Hyderabad to present CPJ's election safety kit to reporters and editors, and hear more about the challenges they face.

A week before I met the Mojo TV editorial team in their Hyderabad office, the Hindupur lawmaker Nandamuri Balakrishna had slapped and threatened one of the station's reporters. Balakrishna, whose brother-in-law is the outgoing Andhra Pradesh chief minister, apologized. But the incident wasn't isolated. Since its launch more than a year ago, the Telugu-language news channel's journalists have been physically assaulted at least five times--including an incident shortly after my visit that involved supporters of a national lawmaker from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, in Nizamabad.

Mojo TV's chief executive and editor Revathi Pogadadanda told me she noticed an increase in hostility over the election period. The channel's experiences were reflected by other journalists with whom I met while presenting CPJ's election safety toolkit across India.

Local reporters and editors said that politicians take legal action or file defamation suits against them over critical reporting, and supporters of right-wing Hindu fringe groups physically attack them or troll them online. In restive regions such as Chhattisgarh and Manipur, reporters face additional challenges from separatists opposed to elections. And in nearly all the discussions, the journalists agreed that greater awareness of digital safety was needed.

The spokespersons for the Balakrishna's Telugu Desam Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi party did not immediately respond to CPJ's text messages requesting comment.

CPJ's Kunal Majumder, pictured with journalists from Mojo TV in Hyderabad. The station's chief executive, Revathi Pogadadanda, also pictured, says she noticed an increase in hostility during the elections. (CPJ)

Mojo TV has come under pressure from both politicians and religious groups. Right-wing Hindu groups harassed the channel in October after one of its journalists, Kavitha Jakkal, reported from the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala after a Supreme Court ruling granted women between the ages of 10 and 50 access to the site. Vicious online attacks were leveled at Jakkal and the station over her report. "I was called all kind of names on WhatsApp groups. Even journalists from rival channels started attacking me using photos from my Facebook profile," Jakkal told me. "I was declared a 'Christian' and 'anti-Hindu'."

The channel's journalists were also harassed and attacked for their election coverage. "The problem is that we can't do much. We can only make some noise," the station's chief executive, Pogadadanda, told me as we sat down for a conversation in her office. "The stakes are too high."

"Every news channel in Andhra and Telangana is expected to take a political side and run their programs to suit the party of their choice," she added. "It is very difficult to be independent and thrive in Telugu media."

Falling foul of a ruling party or politician can have serious consequences. In 2014, cable operators blocked the news channels TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi for three months after Chief Minister Telangana K. Chandrasekhar Rao accused them of bias, CPJ documented at the time. Rao, who according to reports, praised the cable operators for blocking the transmissions, said they were acting on their own accord.

Senior journalists joined CPJ at the Hyderabad press club to discuss safety issues around India's elections. (CPJ)

"Almost every major news channel is owned directly or indirectly by a politician or a political party here," Anandam Pulipalupula, a senior journalist, said during a Telugu-language presentation of the safety kit at the Press Club in Hyderabad.

N. Kondaiah, another senior journalist who attended the presentation, showed me a press invite by the YSR Congress Party on a messaging app, that said the TV5 news channel wasn't invited to the meeting. "TV5 has been critical of YSR Congress Party. That's why the party doesn't like to speak to its reporters," Kondiah said. The party's leader, Jaganmohan Reddy-- who won the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections--also owns a news channel and a daily newspaper.

The YSR Congress Party declined CPJ's request for comment.

Some of the journalists with whom I met raised the case of Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a television journalist who was detained for several months in the northeastern state of Manipur. Wangkhem was imprisoned under India's National Security Act in November for posting a video on social media criticizing the Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parent organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A high court ordered his release last month and charges were dropped, according to reports.

Journalists gather at the Imphal Press Club to hear about CPJ's election safety tool kit. Reporters say greater awareness is needed of digital security for the press. (CPJ)

Paojel Chaoba, a senior editor for Imphal Free Press, told me that Singh had also taken legal action against his paper. In October, Singh filed a criminal defamation case over a report in the daily newspaper about his popularity. The complaint named junior reporter Babie Shirin, editor Pradip Phanjoubam, and publisher Mayengbam Satyajit.

Chaoba said that the state has taken up the case on behalf of the chief minister. "We are a small newspaper which doesn't make a lot of money. By putting a case against us, the chief minister is trying to intermediate and pressurize us. Instead of doing our job, we are now looking for a lawyer who can help us counter the most powerful person in the state," he said.

Spokespersons for the BJP and Singh did not immediately respond to CPJ's request for comment.

Sobhapati Samom, a senior journalist who helped organize CPJ's meeting in Manipur's state capital, Imphal, told me that since Wangkhem's arrest, reporters in the region have become cautious. "Journalists have started self-censoring," he said.

Trapped between Maoists and politicians

It took me over 10 hours by bus to reach Bijapur in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Over the years, CPJ has documented violence against journalists in this region by Maoist militants as well as state forces. At times of election, the risks can increase in this region and other restive states.

In Bijapur, I met Pushpa Rokde, who is in the unique position of being a female journalist and Adivasi. Rokde helped organize the safety meeting in the town's Patrakar Bhawan or "journalist hall." With only one fan to cool the journalists who had gathered in temperatures over 100F, Rokde explained the challenges of being a local reporter in a conflict zone. "We are stuck between the government and the Maoists. Both sides accuse us of siding with the other. As a journalist in Bastar, the choice is between deep sea and the devil," she said.

Senior journalist Kamal Shukla discusses challenges for the press in Bijapur. (CPJ)

As in previous elections, the Maoists called for a boycott. A few days after my visit, Maoists attacked the second largest town in the region, Dantewada, killing a state lawmaker and four police officers, according to reports. Rokde and other journalists had a lot of questions about how to deal with the conflicting demands from Maoists and state authorities.

When the BJP was in power in in Chhattisgarh, several journalists were accused of supporting the Maoists, and some were jailed. The Indian National Congress party won the Chhattisgarh state elections in December with promises to revisit all the legal cases filed against journalists under the previous administration, as well as a pledge to devise a new law for journalist safety.

Journalists in the hilly regions of Manipur had similar questions around safety. This area has also seen conflict in recent decades, from home grown separatists. Singlianmang Guite, from the Manipur Times, was curious about Facebook usage, adding that the digital security section of CPJ's safety kit had been helpful.

The need for better understanding of digital security was reiterated in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, by senior journalist Kamal Shukla. Like Wangkhem, Shukla was charged with sedition by the last state government for sharing a cartoon on Facebook that criticized a Supreme Court observation. The sedition case is ongoing. However, he said that the bigger need in his state was awareness about secure digital communication. "In a conflict situation, we need to know how best to reach our sources without compromising our safety," Shukla said.

Jakkal, from Mojo TV, agreed with the need to further educate journalists on digital security. She said that in all the months of harassment and trolling, the toughest moment was when someone got hold of a photograph of her baby. "It was very scary," she said.


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