India is fighting on two fronts right now – the global pandemic and an escalating humanitarian crisis of millions of migrant workers battling hunger and homelessness due to the lockdown.
Historically, pandemics, wars, and famines have led to the expansion of powers of the state at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms. These freedoms once lost, are not easily regained. And when it comes to downgrading democracy, the right to free speech tends to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
In 1897, during the outbreak of the bubonic plague in India, a prominent freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, became the first person to be convicted for an act of sedition by the colonial British government. He had been writing against the handling of the pandemic and in order to rein him in, the court significantly broadened the definition of sedition. The precedent thus set continued to endure long after the pandemic had passed.
One hundred and twenty-three years later, the Indian state’s response to the twofold crisis in the country bears strong echoes of the past. Three states have issued notifications requiring media outlets to acquire prior clearance by the state before carrying any information or reportage about the pandemic.
The central government sought to universalise this by petitioning the Supreme Court to issue a directive stating that no news on the subject could be printed or broadcast before facts were ascertained through a mechanism set up by the state. This draconian order would have had the effect of nullifying the guarantee of freedom of expression enshrined in India’s constitution in one fell swoop.
The Supreme Court for its part refused to grant the petition, saying it will not interfere in the free discussion on the pandemic, but went on to instruct media houses to ensure they carried the official version. This is the first time such a diktat has been given a judicial stamp.
The Supreme Court’s rejection of the government’s petition, however, can only go so far in protecting free speech. In order to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, the government has invoked the Epidemics Diseases Act of 1897, which gave the British colonial authorities the special powers that Tilak had written against.
It allows the government to restrict the rights of private citizens, including curbing press freedom. This colonial-era act predates and therefore does not take cognizance of India’s constitutional guarantees. The Disaster Management Act 2005, which is also in force at the moment, has a similar provision.
In addition to the increased scrutiny of media, the health emergency has led to widespread monitoring of social media accounts, with official handles of state police forces issuing ominous reminders to users that big brother is watching. Ostensibly, these measures are in place to stop the spread of misinformation but are prone to blatant misuse.
Take for instance Vijay Vineet, a journalist in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh who wrote about the severely disenfranchised Musahar community that was reduced to eating grass for sustenance, in a village bordering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, as result of the ill-planned lockdown. The district administration immediately served him a notice alleging his report was spreading panic at a sensitive time.
Days later, Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of a prominent anti-establishment publication, The Wire, was booked for criticising Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, on Twitter.
More than 200 prominent journalists, the Editors’ Guild, and opposition parties have condemned this as a political vendetta but the state went ahead and issued Varadarajan a summons to appear in a court in a small town some 700km from New Delhi in the midst of a strict lockdown when it would be impossible for him to travel.
The intent of the state to misuse anti-free speech provisions to quell dissent is apparent from the manner in which they are being selectively applied. In recent weeks, the Muslim community has been vilified as a super spreader of the virus and faced harassment on this count.
This blatant attempt by pro-government right-wing groups to communalise the pandemic has been widely criticised, including by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the state has taken no penal action against those responsible for spreading hatred. Nor has the prime minister, who has been making regular televised speeches, condemned such behaviour.
Worse still, Harshali Potdar, an activist from Maharashtra, who belongs to a group that has been systematically targeted for the last two years for their vigorous opposition to the country’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, has been singled out and booked for sharing a post against the mistreatment of Indian Muslims.
In hospitals around the country, doctors have also been warned against speaking with journalists about poor health infrastructure. Dr Indranil Khan, a hospital oncologist in Kolkata, says he was questioned by the police for 16 hours last month but let go after deleting online posts that showed doctors using raincoats as protective health gear. At least 10 other doctors have been similarly threatened by the police, transferred, or forced to resign following their criticism of the government.
The state is not only coercing the sources journalists use but also media owners. Modi recently met with print media owners and discouraged them from carrying “negative” stories about the pandemic – a move that is believed to have triggered self-censorship. Unchecked abuse and death threats on social media further add to the escalating costs of reporting on the poor management of both the disease and its repercussions.
This repression of free speech is creeping in stealthily at a time when people are too distracted by fear and uncertainty to be vigilant about rights and liberty. With most other institutions weakened and ill-equipped to check executive power, the crippling of journalistic freedom is bound to have serious repercussions on the future of democracy in India.
But more immediately, censorship of the truth puts every single citizen of the country, and eventually the whole world, at great risk because the global impact of the pandemic hinges not only on India’s ability to manage its spread and impact but also the country’s fourth estate being able to hold the government accountable to this effect.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.