23, Aug 2021 | Adeeti Singh
Since August 15, Gauri Memorial Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) have been hosting a a series of webinars in memory of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. These online lectures and discussions examine several pertinent elements of the times we live in, and the role of the news media. On August 22, we hosted a discussion on the subject: Democracy under Attack: Populism, surveillance and the media.
The panel comprised Siddharth Vardarajan (Co-founder and Editor of The Wire), Prabir Purkayastha (Founder, Editor of NewsClick) and Teesta Setalvad (Human Rights Defender and CJP Secretary). This discussion was necessitated by the Pegasus spyware scandal, specifically its targeting of journalists known to speak truth to power. All three speakers have been in the regime’s crosshairs for their fearless journalism and human rights advocacy.
Gauri Lankesh holds a very special place in our hearts. CJP’s commitment to human rights–based journalism is our tribute to one of India’s bravest women. To support CJP’s quest to deliver hard-hitting stories about people’s struggles and resilience in face of oppression and divisive politics, Donate Now.
Mainstream vs Alternate Media
Speaking on the subject, Prabir Purkayastha first hailed Gauri Lankesh, a pioneer in the field of rights-based independent journalism, as “a martyr to the cause of fearless journalism.” Lankesh was gunned down outside her Bangalore home on September 5, 2017, allegedly by members of a hardline Hindutva group that has also been accused of targeting and killing rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi. Lankesh’s independent publication Gauri Lankesh Patrike, has been a source of inspiration for many publications that are now part of what is called “Alternate news media” to distinguish them from “Mainstream media”.
But here, Purkayastha offers his take on the mainstream media, who have so far either being outright lapdogs for the regime, or played a role in deflecting attention from its failures. “I wouldn’t call them mainstream media, but big media. They are driven more by advertising and investor concerns than what is in the best interest of their readers,” said Prabir Purkayastha who founded NewsClick in 2009. “The objective then was to do this experiment to see how we could use the online platform to do impactful journalism while keeping costs in check. We wanted to see how a small news platform could change how people consume news,” he said, adding, “Big media was focusing on advertisers. As alternative media, we wanted to give a voice to movements,” explaining the genesis of one of the most impactful online news portals in the country. But Purkayastha has paid dearly for his journalism, being targeted repeatedly by a vindictive regime.
Intimidating journalists with criminal cases
Another online publication that refused to bend the knee and kiss the ring is The Wire. Siddharth Varadarajan and his team have also been targeted with trumped up charges and multiple FIRS. “There’s an FIR against me. There is an FIR against a young colleague Ismat Ara who interviewed the grandfather of the farmer killed during the republic day protests. This was because, during that interview the old man said he suspected foul play. There are other colleagues who also face FIRs, Siraj Ali for reporting on a mosque demolition in Barabanki. In all there are four to five different cases against us,” he said explaining how the regime has tried to intimidate them.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, 40-50 journalists across the country have been targeted with criminal cases for news reportage,” said Varadarajan enumerating instances where journalists were being intimidated using criminal cases, such as Kishorechandra Wangkhem who put up a post about how cow urine could not cure Covid-19, or a reporter in Port Blaire who asked authorities why they were forcibly quarantining a family that had mere spoken to a Covid patient over the phone.
At this point Teesta Setalvad also reminded people, “Siddique Kappan is still in jail,” referring to the journalist who was picked up while on his way to cover the Hathras case and then accused of being connected with “anti-national” organisations. “The journalist today is a Human Rights Defender and is targeted for demanding information in public interest, and raising concerns when this information is denied,” she said.
“This is a new form of offence, we have not seen this before, so definitely there is an escalation of fear, using extra legal means to clamp down on reporters, editors, publications who are against the Centre’s agenda. This trend is dangerous. Citizens must have the ability to question what the government is doing, every sector of civil society must raise their voice and speak out,” said Vardarajan.
Pegasus: Aftermath and Implications
The Wire team has played a key role in exposing the Pegasus scam. “We began by scrutinising a list of 1,300 names, but could verify 300 numbers who were targeted or listed for targeting with Pegasus,” said Varadarajan. Out of these, they approached 60 people with a request to analyse their phones but some were hesitant. “Eventually, we ended up testing 25 phones and 14 mobiles were confirmed to have been infected,” he said.
When Setalvad brought up the subject of how the concept of privacy itself is viewed by the middle class,
Purkayastha hit it out of the park saying, “Apologists for the government often say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, why do you need privacy?’ To them, I say, ‘Why don’t you post all your passwords on social media?’”
Varadrajan also pointed out, “When the regime authorises surveillance of Prashant Kishore’s phone while he was advising Mamata Banerjee during the Bengal elections, in my opinion it is an assault on the electoral process itself.” He further said, “Pegasus is changing the nature of your phone as a communication device. It allows access to your camera and your microphone. Your phone can now be used for spying.” He added, “Pegasus allows the government to hack my phone. I don’t think that it is legal for the government to hack my phone using a cyber weapon.”
On the subject of malicious software, Teesta Setalvad drew attention to the findings of Arsenal, an American digital forensics firm that found malware had been used to plant evidence on devices used by activist implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case. And while the government continues to gaslight citizens, Setalvad pointed out, “Even the court has not taken cognisance of the Arsenal report. There is absence of judicial oversight in this case.”
To this Purkayastha responded by drawing attention to the digital literacy or possible lack thereof among members of the judiciary. He also said, “The Arsenal report on malware revealed how evidence was externally planted on a computer and used to build a case that the planted document was sent to others accused in the case. Today, malware has introduced ‘zero click infection’. You no longer have to click a suspicious link. It can either plant evidence or extract information.”
Reportage on Kashmir
The next topic touched upon by Setalvad was Jammu and Kashmir and how reporting from the valley is a challenge. She mentioned how The Wire and NewsClick has done exemplary work covering Kashmir, especially during the internet shutdown.
Vardarajan spoke about the pressure on journalists who are threatened with legal action for working on stories that reveal the actual state of affairs and how Jammu and Kashmir has taken the shape of a “police state” for journalists. He said, “Reporting from Kashmir is always difficult. There is too much pressure on journalists. They are summoned in thanas (police stations). Then, the cyber cell will ask you questions and berate you. If you are a freelancer and the publication is not strongly backing you, you are threatened with FIRs and that shakes a reporter up”. He suggested that the media fraternity needs to take a strong stand against such intimidation tactics and support the work done by reporters.
Purkayastha also shed some light on Kashmir and the internet shutdowns that have affected the daily routine of people there. He remarked that shutting down the internet affects other opportunities like applying for jobs, scholarships, etc. “Internet is a necessity now, not a luxury. Shutting down the internet is a denial of a necessity,” he said. Furthermore, he added that it is very important for journalists to report on Kashmir for the rest of the nation. “People should know what is really happening in Kashmir. We did it to show how things are not normal in Kashmir,” he said.
Setalvad mentioned how hate is being used as a propaganda tool and as a result of this, the country is witnessing a tilt to majoritarianism. “Our publication Communalism Combat (1993-2001), then SabrangIndia (2015 onwards) have been highlighting instances of hate speech. Moreover, CJP has taken a legal recourse, reporting instances of hate to authorities and even those instances where news media was involved in the propagation of hate,” said Setalvad.
According to Vardarajan, it is futile to look at hate speech laws, as he is always in two minds about this. He drew parallels between two incidents where the Delhi Police charged student activists under UAPA and sedition charges but failed to take action against people who openly called for the genocide of Muslims. Referring to the Islamophobic slogans raised at Jantar Manta a few days ago, Varadarajan said, “You find no mention of sedition, or UAPA. Only milder sections of law are applied in cases where people call for the genocide at the heart of Delhi and they get bail!”
He also added that often the victims of hate speech incidents or crime are charged under hate speech provisions for promoting enmity between groups. Purkayastha also raised an important point saying it is the business model of these social media platforms that perpetuate and allow hate. Facebook, which has a poor track record of taking action against hate, has algorithms that depend on hate speech, as per Prabir. He added, “This appeals to certain sections. Facebook likes the eyeballs it attracts when hate is perpetuated. How do we regulate this! It is difficult to penalise this. We can complain about hate speech but the viewership also needs to be educated a lot. People now give so much more importance to WhatsApp and Facebook news. An entire generation needs to be educated.”
He pointed out how social media has been misused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, and against Rohingyas in the past.
New Information Technology Rules
Referred to the new rules of the Information Technology Act, that attempt to censor content on digital media platforms, Varadrajan said, “I am glad that the Bombay High Court has stayed some of the nastiest sections of the new IT Rules. The purpose behind these rules is to allow the government to control the narrative in digital news media. But no doubt this will be challenged, I hope the Supreme Court concurs with the decision of the High Court”. He further explained that this is against the Constitution and that there is an attempt by the Centre to weaponise the system of complaints to decide what can be said or printed.
The High Court recently stayed the operation of Rule 9 of the 2021 IT Rules deeming it to be manifestly unreasonable and going beyond the IT Act. This means that the publisher will not have to adhere to all the code of ethics such as the Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under Section 5 of the CTVN Act. Further, no self-regulation or central government oversight can be established, allowing the publishers functioning under jurisdiction of Bombay High Court, to freely publish articles without central government interference, subject to further orders of the court.
Purkayastha also explained that the digital platforms have played a role that the ruling government doesn’t like and is uncomfortable with. He said, “This is not the intent of the law but the intent of the government is very clear. A long battle is ahead us.”
Concluding on a hopeful note, he did say that citizens are slowly understanding the government’s intent. He said after the Pegasus revelation, denying Covid deaths is increasing the alienation of people from the government.
The webinar ended by highlighting the need for people to organise themselves at every level to resist undemocratic practices of the Government and raise the right questions.
The entire webinar may be viewed here: