A prominent press watchdog says the United States government should urge Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to end what it called a crackdown on media as it demanded the release of six journalists “arbitrarily detained in retaliation for their work”.
In a statement released on Wednesday ahead of Modi’s White House state visit next week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said journalists critical of the Indian government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been jailed, harassed and surveilled.
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“Since Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014, there has been an increasing crackdown on India’s media,” CPJ’s president Jodie Ginsberg said.
“India is the world’s largest democracy and it needs to live up to that by ensuring a free and independent media – and we expect the United States to make this a core element of discussions,” she said.
CPJ demanded the release of six journalists, four of whom belong to the Indian-administered Kashmir – Aasif Sultan, Sajad Gul, Fahad Shah and Irfan Mehraj. The other two are Gautam Navlakha and Rupesh Kumar Singh.
The press freedom watchdog said they have been “targeted under draconian security laws”, with Shah facing trial for a 2011 article published by his online magazine, The Kashmir Walla. The other five journalists remain in pre-trial detention, it said.
CPJ also slammed the routine police raids and income tax investigations against domestic and foreign outlets, including the BBC, whose offices in New Delhi and Mumbai were raided after it screened a documentary critical of Modi.
“Foreign correspondents say they have faced increasing visa uncertainties, restricted access to several areas of the country, including Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and even threats of deportation in retaliation for critical reporting in recent years,” the CPJ statement said.
The watchdog said 62 journalists have been killed in India in connection with their work since 1992, with the country ranking 11th on its “impunity index” last year.
India also led the world in internet shutdowns for the fifth year in 2022, impeding press freedom and the ability of journalists to work freely, it said.
Prashant Tandon, journalist and member of the Press Club of India, told Al Jazeera there is tremendous pressure on journalists, especially those who are critical of the government.
“Besides booking journalists in frivolous cases and keeping them in jail, there is an undeclared censorship on any kind of dissent,” Tandon said. “Democracy cannot function without a free press.”
Tandon said violations of civil rights when the state apparatus is involved cannot remain a domestic issue anymore.
“Global media and organisations like CPJ working for the protection of journalists should raise the voice of Indian journalists at every possible forum,” he said.
Al Jazeera reached out to a BJP spokesman who said he has not gone through the CPJ report and therefore cannot comment on it.