India under Narendra Modi ranked 13th in 2021’s annual census of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) on slain and jailed journalists, a year that saw a record 293 journalists remaining jailed for their work across the globe as of December 1. This also marks the sixth consecutive year where over 250 journalists were behind bars.
The Committee’s report also stated that at least 24 journalists were killed in relation to their reportage.
Of these casualties, three are from India: BNN News’s Avinash Jha, killed in Bihar for allegedly uncovering the medical mafia operating in his neighbourhood; Sudarshan TV’s Manish Kumar Singh, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, who the US media reported as being executed by the Taliban after seizing control of Afghanistan.
China retains its place as the global leader in imprisoning journalists for the third year in a row, having 50 scribes behind bars as per the report. Myanmar comes in at a distant second with 26 jailed journalists – a dramatic increase from 2020 on account of February’s military coup, which ousted the elected Aung San Suu Kyi government.
Egypt, Vietnam and Belarus make up the rest of the top five jailers. As the world was preoccupied with dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, autocratic rulers, according to CPJ, sought to consolidate power and come down hard on dissidents and political opponents; be it in Belarus, China or even in India. Internet shutdowns, sophisticated spyware and more such tools reinforced the arsenals used to suppress the voices that questioned them.
Despite ranking only 13th in the CPJ’s report, India under Modi has been prolific in its use of tools to suppress dissent and narratives that don’t align with those of the ruling party. Internet shutdowns were employed during the farmers’ protests – the biggest showing of dissent against the Modi government in recent years – as well as in Kashmir, ever since the reading down of Article 370 in 2019, which are still being arbitrarily used to this day.
The Modi government’s suppression of dissent has been criticised by numerous international rights organisations for the various dimensions in which they are enforced, one of which was its treatment of Twitter this year ever since the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules were introduced.
Backed with a strong pro-government media machinery ready to defend the official narrative from attacks even from comedians, the Modi government hardly needs to arrest journalists to keep dissent at bay.
China retained its familiar top spot when it comes to imprisoning journalists. Zhang Zhan, the 37-year-old citizen journalist whose reports from Wuhan during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic contrasted the official narrative with pictures of crowded hospitals and empty streets, was sentenced to four years in jail in December, 2020, where she has remained since.
She was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, an oft-enforced charge against dissidents in the country. Zhan has been on hunger strike in the recent past and, according to her family, is currently “close to death”. She has also been nominated for the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom award for courage.
In a year where press freedom was stifled to a never-before seen degree, 19 journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work, according to the CPJ report, compared to last year’s total of 22 casualties. Additionally, three journalists lost their lives reporting from conflict zones and two were killed while covering protests which turned violent. India recorded four such killings while a fifth died while covering a protest.