Freedom of the Press
India’s vibrant media scene is by far the freest in South Asia, although journalists, particularly those in rural areas and certain conflict-racked states, faced a number of challenges in 2010, including an increase in legal actions and occasional incidents of violence. The constitution provides for freedoms of speech and expression, and while there are some legal limitations, these rights are generally upheld. The 1923 Official Secrets Act gives authorities the power to censor security-related articles and prosecute members of the press, but no such cases were reported during the year. State and national authorities have on occasion used other security laws, criminal defamation legislation, blasphemy provisions, and contempt-of-court charges to curb critical reporting, though a 2006 amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act introduced truth as a defense. Hate-speech laws have also been used against the press. In July 2010, magazine editor T. P. Nandakumar was arrested in Kerala on defamation charges and held briefly before being released on bail. In Tamil Nadu, A. S. Mani of the Naveena Netrikan magazine, who had been imprisoned on defamation charges in 2009, was detained for a month in July 2010 on spurious charges and mistreated in custody after writing an article on police corruption. In December, criminal charges were filed against K. K. Shahina, a reporter for the weekly magazine Tehelka, following its publication of an investigative story on the prosecution of Abdul Nasar Mahdani, a popular Islamic cleric and political leader from Kerala. Implementation of the landmark 2005 Right to Information Act has been mixed, with the majority of requests being blocked due to broad restrictions on the release of information.
The Press Council of India (PCI), an independent self-regulatory body for the print media composed of journalists, publishers, and politicians, investigates complaints of misconduct or irresponsible reporting. The regulatory framework for the rapidly expanding broadcast sector does not at present feature an independent agency that is free from political influence. A draft bill on broadcasting regulation has been introduced on several occasions during the past decade, but it has failed to make headway; broadcasters’ and journalists’ groups oppose the measure, viewing it as a government attempt to extend control over the sector. In a bid to forestall official regulation of news coverage—including proposals by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks to increase regulation of television news feeds in times of crisis—the News Broadcasters’ Association, an industry body that primarily represents the television sector, issued a new set of self-regulatory guidelines in February 2009, covering topics including crime, violence, and national security. While access to the profession of journalism is open, an accreditation mechanism for online journalists has not yet been developed. Media industry groups and local press freedom advocacy organizations remain somewhat weak.
Physical intimidation of journalists by a variety of actors continued to be a problem in 2010. A number of journalists were attacked, threatened, abducted, or detained by police, political activists, right-wing groups, insurgents, local officials, or criminals. Police attacks on journalists attempting to cover the news were a particular problem during the year, with a spate of incidents reported in February. One journalist was killed in the course of his duties, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The reporter, Vijay Pratap Singh, was caught in a bomb blast targeting a local politician in Allahabad. Media offices were also targeted during the year. In July, Hindu nationalists attacked the offices of the Headlines Today television station in New Delhi, as well as the studios of the Marathi-language Zee 24 Taas station in Kolhapur. Journalists covering extractive industries in Orissa faced a dramatic increase in harassment in 2010, according to an investigation by the Free Speech Hub, a local watchdog website. In a positive development, the National Human Rights Commission in February ordered that approximately $11,000 be paid in restitution to a journalist who had faced harassment by local police in a case dating to 2004. The PCI also investigated the case and ordered that local authorities file reports on the journalist’s safety for a further five years.
Members of the press are particularly vulnerable in rural areas and insurgency-racked states such as Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, and Manipur.Reporters in these states faced pressure from both the government and insurgents in 2010. Those suspected of Maoist or other insurgent sympathies were sometimes threatened with sedition charges or detained by the authorities, while others were pressured to reveal their sources for sensitive stories. In July and again in November, media outlets in Manipur announced the joint closure of a number of newspapers in order to protest threats from armed political groups, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Increased civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir during 2010 led to more instances of harassment of local journalists, particularly as they attempted to cover repeated confrontations between protesters and security forces. Many reporters in the state also had their special curfew passes seized and were otherwise harassed or beaten by police. The local media continued to face threats from militants regarding coverage of certain issues, and pressure to self-censor has also been reported at outlets that rely on state government advertising for the majority of their revenue. Jammu and Kashmir’s local cable television stations, as well as pages on the Facebook social-networking site and mobile-telephone text messages, were censored during periods of unrest, and editions of local newspapers were unable to print in Srinagar as a result of curfews. According to the Asian Media Barometer for India, the authorities in a number of states occasionally block certain cable news channels or instruct cable operators not to carry channels based on their political slant or content. A number of foreign journalists have had trouble obtaining visas to report from within the country. In June 2010, authorities refused to renew the visa of Shogo Takahashi, the New Delhi bureau chief of Japanese public broadcaster NHK, allegedly in reprisal for his negative reporting.
Most print outlets, particularly in the national and English-language press, are privately owned, provide diverse coverage, and frequently scrutinize the government. The low cost of newspapers—which are sold at prices far below the cost of production—ensures wider access to print media than in most low-income countries. The broadcast media are predominantly in private hands, and diversity in the television sector has expanded exponentially. However, the state retains a monopoly on AM radio broadcasting, and private FM radio stations are not allowed to air news content. Under a policy announced in 2006, which provided guidelines for the ownership and operation of community radio stations by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society groups, there has been a modest increase in community radio stations, leading to a greater diversity of voices and topics covered. The MIB reported that as of the end of 2010, 825 applications had been received, approvals had been granted to 263 applicants, and 103 stations had become operational.Doordarshan, India’s state-controlled television station, has been accused of manipulating the news to favor the government, and some private satellite television channels provide coverage that reflects the political affiliations of their owners, according to the U.S. State Department.
The placement or withdrawal of advertisements is used by both the national and state-level governments to reward favored news outlets or punish those who produce critical stories. Bribery is also a major concern, as is overt blurring between the editorial and advertising departments at many outlets, sometimes through the use of “private treaties” between media outlets and major companies. During 2009, local media outlets brought attention to the ongoing practice of “cash for coverage,” in which payments are made to secure favorable news coverage for candidates and parties, particularly during election cycles.The allegations led to investigations by India’s election commissioner and the PCI, but the practice of paid news remains deeply entrenched, as it bolsters salaries for journalists and revenues for media owners. In September 2010, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) announced new disclosure rules, formulated in consultation with the PCI, which would require all media houses to reveal any financial interests in companies that they report on. In November, a scandal over recorded telephone conversations, known as the Radia tapes controversy, led to criticism of several leading journalists for their apparent involvement in bargains between lobbyists and political parties. India is one of the few countries worldwide where print media remain a vibrant and financially sustainable growth industry, and rising numbers of both print and broadcast outlets that target national or various regional or linguistic audiences operate throughout the country.Restrictions on foreign news outlets were reduced in 2009, allowing 100 percent foreign-owned periodicals to print local editions with government approval.
The internet, accessed by about 7.5 percent of the population in 2010, remains largely unrestricted. However, the government retains the power to censor the medium, particularly on grounds of morality or national security. The 2008 Information Technology Act gives the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology the authority to block material that endangers public order or national security. The law also enables prosecution of cybercafés, search engines, and internet-service providers. Mobile phones are increasingly being used as a means of gathering and disseminating news and information, particularly in rural communities and areas with high rates of illiteracy. In 2010, authorities attempted to pressure Research In Motion, the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry mobile device, into allowing official surveillance of its instant messaging and e-mail services.