Is Media Safe From Interference In India?

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New Delhi – The recent arrest, on February 14, of eminent Indian journalist, Syed Kazmi and a midnight police raid, on March 11, of Frontline magazine Delhi Bureau chief, John Cherian, which police later framed as “a case of misunderstanding,” has forced many within the journalist fraternity to ponder whether they are safe in a democratic country like India?

No one can deny the fact that the media in India works under a free sky, and unlike China and other countries where there are restrictions on what media can report, Indian media has never come under any kind of government pressure.

kazmi arrested
Kazmi Arrested

In the latest incident, Kazmi, an accredited journalist, a father of three, and formerly a public television broadcaster, was arrested for his alleged role in the “Sticky bomb” case, an attack on an Israeli diplomatic car. The Delhi Police failed to provide any authentic proof of Kazmi’s involvement. Many now feel this is clearly an indication that media is no longer free, and now any time, any journalist can be picked up and framed, on any charge by the police.

The arrest of Kazmi, which is still shrouded in mystery, has not helped the investigating agencies to crack the car blast case.

It is interesting to look the circumstances under which Kazmi was arrested, which in itself looks like a scene out of a Bollywood potboiler.

According to reports, Kazmi was picked up from the India Islamic Cultural Centre in New Delhi, at about 11.30 am on February 14. Subsequently, he was taken to the office of the Special Cell of the Delhi police. However, officially his arrest has been shown in the records as 8.30 pm. Later in the night, officers of the Special Cell raided Kazmi’s house and seized his laptop, Press Information Bureau card, passport, driving license and some other documents. The police also seized his Alto car, and the two-wheeler they claim was used for the reconoiter of the Israeli target.

“I was forced to sign on the arrest memo at 2.30 am. We asked them to wait until morning, but they threatened us.”

Citing this arbitrariness, Kazmi’s son revealed an even more important thing. He said, “I was forced to sign on the arrest memo at 2.30 am. We asked them to wait until morning, but they threatened us.”

So is it not right to say that Kazmi has been a victim at the hands of the Delhi Police? If the police can arrest an established and prominent journalist in the capital, can’t they arrest an ordinary scribe at any time, if they want, and put fictitious charges on him?

It has already been reported that since Kazmi’s arrest, Delhi police have still not been able to produce any kind of substantial evidence linking him to the aiding and abetting of the “sticky bomb” conspiracy. More interestingly, it is interesting to note that the police are tight-lipped on the matter of the real culprits behind the attack.

One can guess some things by this simple situation: if you are a journalist and you call the Delhi Police Public Relations Officer, who is in charge of the media, he will not be able to say anything related to this case.

It is indeed a matter of alarm that the repeated protests by the various media organisations at national and international level against Kazmi’s arrest have not yielded any result.

The largest journalist body in the country, the Delhi Union of Journalists, issued a statement, saying, “Investigations can continue but he should be released on bail since he is cooperating with the investigations. We do not want the police to indulge in a media trial. If there is any need for information to be given, it should only be through an official press note.”

The union’s statement also hinted at foul play in Kazmi’s arrest when it said, “Possibly Kazmi’s close association with the Iranian media outlets is being used by the police to implicate him.”

Though the statement was issued keeping Kazmi in mind, the bigger concern on the journalist fraternity’s mind is that Kazmi’s arrest can have repercussions on other scribes too. A journalist would definitely now think twice whether he or she should work for any international outlet or not, because the message from the Indian authorities seems to be – that you can be used by the government like a puppet and no one would really care about you.

It is not easy to forget the case of Ifthikar Geelani back in 2001 when he was arrested under the Official Secrets Act, and though he was set free, it indicated one thing clearly and categorically – if the government wants, it can arrest anybody at any time and can slap you with any fictitious charge within days and you will be thrown behind bars.

India is a democratic country where media is treated as the fourth pillar of democracy. It has already exposed the involvement of many senior bureaucrats and ministers in various scams and corruption cases, forcing the government to act against the tainted minters, but it is not wrong to say that now the situation and times have changed. Now if you are a journalist, no matter for which agency you are working, local, national or international, there is a possibility that a “case” can be framed against you and you can be attacked, tortured, harassed and finally set free.

Pertinently, Kazmi’s arrest is also giving sleepless nights to another category of researchers and journalists – the ones who recently visited Syria to cover the referendum on a new constitution. They feel that now the government is constantly monitoring their activities. They are wondering as to whether the Indian government is acting under any kind of international pressure? If the answer is yes, then the time has come for the government to act against those forces, because if they don’t act now, it could ultimately create dissent in our democracy.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was first published on countercurrents.org. This version has been edited by NewsBlaze editors.

Adil Akhzer is a young Journalist and editor, based in Srinagar India. Adil writes stories about items of interest in New Delhi and Kashmir.