India: Attacks on Journalists and the Spread of Misinformation

Journalists are duty-bound to uphold the truth through verification. But more and more, public watchdogs in India are facing the wrath of people in power for reporting facts. India has always ranked low on the Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries based on the level of freedom their journalists enjoy. Yet, in recent years, the country appears to have become increasingly more dangerous for journalists. Attacks on journalists in connection to their work have increased alongside the rapid spread of misinformation.

200 serious attacks between 2014 and 2019

A new study notes that journalists in India faced 200 serious attacks between 2014 and 2019, including 40 killings, of which 21 have been confirmed as being in direct connection with their investigative work. Perpetrators include businessmen, politicians, politicians-and-police, right wing/Hindutva groups, state security forces, village officials, Maoists and/or splinter groups, and political party supporters. 

The study points to the miscarriage of justice in bringing perpetrators to book, resulting from indifference by the police and their tendency to believe that the reason for the attack was personal enmity or corrupt practice on the part of the journalist. 

Another finding is the increase in the number of attacks on women journalists, as seen in physical attacks and abuses against 19 women journalists during the Sabarimala row. And in further evidence of deepening religious fault lines, a large number of journalists belonging to the Muslim community were among those attacked and harassed by the police in the CAA-NRC protests. 

According to a report by independent journalist Geeta Seshu, 154 journalists were arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices for their professional work between 2010-20. A majority of them worked for non-English print publications and television channels, as freelancers, or published on social media platforms. During the same time, nine foreign journalists were interrogated, deported or denied entry into the country. 

Of the 154 cases, 73 originated in BJP-ruled states while 30 were from states ruled by BJP and National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Among the BJP-led states, Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 29 cases. The remaining cases were from states under President’s Rule or Governor’s rule, over whom the central government has direct control. The report highlights the nexus between law enforcers and the local administration, businesses and political entities, in delaying or denying justice to affected media persons or their families. 

Dismal ranking on World Press Freedom Index

In 2013, when the Indian National Congress (INC) was in power, eleven journalists were killed in India, putting the country in third position in the International Press Institute’s list of media personnels killed around the world during the year. India was behind Syria, and joint second Iraq and the Philippines.

Five years later, Reporters Without Borders ranked India 138th on its World Press Freedom Index, noting the threat of smears and physical violence against journalists by radical nationalists. Just a year before, the country was shocked by the brazen murder of veteran journalist and progressive activist Gauri Lankesh, which lead to the arrest of 18 men who await conviction. The Special Investigative Team (SIT) constituted by the then Congress government in Karnataka held the extremist organization Sanatan Sanstha responsible for the murder. 

Hindu fringe groups have come under scrutiny for practicing and engendering intolerance. Sometimes, their hatred culminates into violence against members of other religious communities, but also journalists they believe aren’t on their side. Brazen acts of killing and serious attacks against members of the press also result from their courageous work on exposing corruption and illegal activities. In some cases, challenging entrenched social practices can prove deadly for journalists, as seen in the murder of three journalists in Bihar for reporting on child marriage. 

Fake news factories

Over 400 million Indians use the internet but lack the know-how to cross-check claims in order to distinguish facts from falsity. While fact-checking websites have spawned to fight misinformation, they’re struggling in the face of rapid dissemination of information on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. 

India has gained a dubious reputation for WhatsApp murders and lynchings stemming from the spread of rumours of organ harvesting, cattle trading or child kidnapping through the mobile app. It led WhatsApp to limit the forwarding option for Indian users as a measure to reduce the frequency of messages being forwarded. 

However, WhatsApp groups remain a major conduit for propagating misinformation. Fact-checking within groups is sparse or it may not be proactive out of the fear of voicing the minority view or antagonizing dominant group members. 

Social media also serves as an effective channel for political propaganda. While ministers themselves don’t engage in propaganda, they have an army of foot soldiers to spin political narratives in their favour. The ruling party has a sizable presence on social networks, led by Amit Malviya, the national convener of its IT cell. 

Religion angle

India’s religious divide has also contributed to fake news online. Last year, after members of an Islamic group who had visited Delhi to attend a religious meet tested positive for COVID-10, disinformation targeting Muslims grew, and even resulted in incidents where Muslims were attacked for allegedly spreading the virus. In fact, the country earned the dubious reputation for producing the largest amount of social media disinformation on COVID-19.

Religious majoritarianism can manifest in insidious ways, from denying jobs to people of other faiths to renting to people only from a certain faith and generally harming the country’s composite culture. Strict curbs on fake news and hate speech by social media are needed for the welfare of citizens.  

The fourth estate

As the fourth estate, the press and news media are expected to resolutely stick to the values expected in their profession – even in the face of threats and attacks. Unfortunately, media houses have come to play an important role in reinforcing religious majoritarianism, toeing the line in an apparent move to appease the ruling right-wing party. However, keeping in mind that no political party remains in power forever, media houses and journalists face the risk of losing trust and sinking their business and reputation.