Cognisant of the need to address growing pressure on freedom of speech and expression in South Asia, increasing attacks on media workers and professionals and recognising that such freedoms are indivisible and know no political boundaries, journalists from across this geography have come together to form the South Asia Media Defender’s Network (SAMDEN). Its aim is to extend support and solidarity to media counterparts in the region who are under attack in various ways. It will also mobilize media colleagues through collaboration with other like-minded media groups and associations.
The Network will be anchored in the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), led by five co-convenors — CHRI’s Director Sanjoy Hazarika, Kanak Dixit, writer and Founding Editor, Himal Southasian, Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, Beena Sarwar , journalist and filmmake, and Kumar Lopez, Executive Director, Sri Lanka Press Institute.
The aim of such a Network would be to extend support to media professionals at risk in general, but specifically in semi-urban, small metros and rural areas whose vulnerability is rarely recognised. SAMDEN seeks to develop briefing tools on risk analysis, directories as well as other relevant resources for journalists including handbooks on media and IT laws to enable media workers to be better equipped to deal with the challenges and risks entailed in carrying out their professional duties in hostile conditions. SAMDEN also plans to develop an interactive website platform that will carry details of assaults on media freedom as well as short online reports on experiences of pressure on the media in South Asia.
SAMDEN held its first Convening between 22nd- 24th June 2018, at the International Centre, Goa. You can read the convening report here.
The second convening in Delhi in 2nd March 2019 was around The Perils Of The Internet
The meeting and this report come out of concerns about the safety of journalists and their work in the digital space. The problems here are unique, when contrasted to those that they face offscreen (or ‘offline’): harassment and abuse, trolling, doxing, illegal surveillance and ‘tracking’. Even though these problems are common to journalists across the region (and indeed, across the world), this particular convening focused on journalists in India.
“We are meeting at a very challenging time when problems such as fake news abound. What can be done to address these? How do we deal with this continuous assault of the freedom of the press and journalists?” asked Mr. Sanjoy Hazarika, International Director, CHRI while introducing the first session of the convening. He also stressed on the fact that these problems cannot be solved in isolation. “We need to have each other’s backs. We need to work together to support each other,” he added, because in such times, it is more important than ever that defenders of truth and rights do not have to work in isolation.
To whom can a rural stringer, a regional reporter, or a suburban news outlet turn if they are attacked by, say, the sand mafia (as happened, for instance, in cases such as 1, 2 and 3), for uncovering corruption, or if they are dragged into frivolous, yet expensive lawsuits by powerful politicians or corporations (as happened in these cases)? What protects Indian journalists today? Very little.
On the other hand, there are several laws on the books that have been – and continue to be – used to target them for their work. Several of these laws are part of India’s colonial heritage – a heritage it shares with other Commonwealth countries. To this day, media workers in these countries can be punished by arrest under various sections such as criminal defamation, sedition, morality, obscenity and expressions of sexuality, among others.
Yet other laws, such as certain section of the Information Technology (IT) Act give the State an astonishingly wide scope for surveillance. Section 69, for instance, can let any government official or policeman to listen in to personal calls, read SMSs and emails, and monitor websites visited, without a magistrate’s warrant. The government can also block websites under Section 69(A). More recently, through the proposed IT [Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018, the government attempted to give service providers and platforms greater powers to monitor, censor and block user content – a move that drew criticism from rights groups across India as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Apart from legal attacks, journalists also face intimidation in other forms, including violence, both online and offline. According to the Committee to Protect
Journalists (CPJ), at least 47 journalists have been killed in India over the past 20 years — 11 since 2014. Several, if not all, of these journalists received threats beforehand for the (often sensitive or controversial) work they had been doing.
While all threats do not end in acute violence, they often force editors and organisations to withdraw critical stories, quit their jobs, or suffer a heavy psychological toll. Some end in physical attacks meant to serve as warnings. A study by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation found that “around 40% of the female journalists they interviewed across the world had stopped writing about stories they knew would be lightning rods for attacks”.
These dangers can no longer be ignored.
Freedom of the press is not merely the freedom of the media to report, but also the freedom of the people to receive their news freely, Mr. Venkatesh Nayak, Head of CHRI’s Access to Information programme said at the convening. No discussion about free access to information can, therefore, be complete without addressing the ways in which governments can withhold information from their citizens. There have, historically, been several ways this has been done: by directly shutting down radio/TV shows, by directly attacking news outlets, banning them or financially pressuring them into refraining from reporting, or more recently, by shutting the medium of popular communication, the internet.
In this convening, therefore, we chose to focus on three major issues that plague journalists in India: the (mis)use of laws to attack journalists; trolling and online attacks against journalists; and the need for protection against surveillance and misinformation. You can read more about the meeting here.
For more information, please write to Sanjoy Hazarika, CHRI International Director and SAMDEN co-convenor at email@example.com