While the world is busy fighting COVID-19, India, a democratic and secular state consisting of different religions, is busy silencing the media and dissent. The use of anti-terror laws to discriminate against Muslims has long been a problem in India, and more recently these laws have begun to be used against journalists too.
In the disputed land of Kashmir, invoking such stringent laws speaks to the silencing of the media, controlling the narrative and containing what is occurring in the region. Since the abrogation of Article 370, the world has been disconnected from Kashmir. For example, telephone and internet services have separated the people of the valley and very few media outlets have been allowed to publish news in this region. Journalists were being intimidated from publishing news against the government. The International Press Institute highly criticized India’s Hindu Nationalist government for the restrictions placed on journalists’ news coverage in this region post-abrogation of Article 370.
In a sudden turn of events, the government has taken a step further and Masrat Zehra, Peerzada Ashiq and Gowhar Geelani, have been arrested under the controversial, anti-terror, ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act’ (UAPA). Originally enacted in 1967, the law has been censured for its recent 2019 amendments, which allows the central government to declare individuals as ‘terrorists’. Masrat and Geelani were booked under the UAPA for social media posts which were deemed “anti-national” and Peerzada was booked for a news item that was eventually proven to be inaccurate. The way these arrests occurred shows how the government in India has cunningly made use of such a draconian law in such unstable times.
While there are journalists like Arnab Goswami, who have been accused for their bigoted views and inciting hatred, it is journalists covering news in sensitive areas who are being arrested under the Terrorism Act. Facing intimidation and harassment is nothing new for journalists in Kashmir. Since the 1990s, they have been facing the wrath of both state bodies and non-state bodies (e.g. militants) for covering delicate issues in this region. This pattern of intimidation has intensified lately. Many have been humiliated, summoned by the police and interrogated exhaustively, and sometimes forced to give out their sources. However, they are also now being charged for terrorist activities.
The surprising invocation of the UAPA against these journalists is problematic. This action is clearly against freedom of speech as envisioned in Article 19 of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration of 1948, which guarantees the right to seek, receive, and impart information. Threats to this principle of international law have emerged in recent times. Though technology affords global communication, governments have challenged the very concept of press freedom, by avowing that it is not a universally accepted right, but rather needs to be adjusted to a nation’s needs and circumstances.
Section 15 of the UAPA defines a terrorist act as one with “intent to threaten or is likely to threaten the unity, security, or sovereignty of India…” The ambiguous wording of ‘security’ and ‘threaten’ has permitted the current administration wide scope to interpret this for their benefit and suppress other voices in this region. This has resulted in journalists being booked as terrorists and punished under Section 13 of UAPA. Although the Apex court of India has noted that vague provisions should be struck down from faulty legislation, the misuse of such provisions has continued. Another astonishing part of this act is that any person can be confined for a maximum period of one year without a trial. When looked at together, the fundamental notions of liberty and human rights are disregarded, as anybody could be labelled a terrorist without being granted a trial.
However, this power of free speech can be restricted under certain grounds such as the defense of national security, or to protect the reputation and rights of others. Yet, one needs to question whether the acts of these journalists calls for usage of the UAPA. Any usage of such laws for merely publishing news or pictures in the mainstream or social media is unwarranted. The preamble of the UAPA mentions that the intent of this act is to ensure action is taken against terrorist activities and terror organizations. The actions of these individuals do not come close to this.
The Editors Guild of India released a statement on April 21st condemning the arrests of these journalists. Free, autonomous and pluralistic media based on freedom of information and expression is an essential component of any working democracy. Freedom of the media is in fact necessary for the assurance of all other human rights. Occasions of torment, segregation, debasement or abuse have commonly become visible due to insightful journalists. Making the realities known to the general public is one of the fundamental tools to address human rights infringements and begin to hold governments responsible. George Orwell observes, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The UAPA might aim at taking action against terrorism, but by restricting such fundamental freedoms, it is doing more harm than good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chaitanya M. Hegde is a 2nd year undergraduate student student pursuing a BA LLB at Gujarat National Law University (GNLU), Gandhinagar.