Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to HRW, however, sedition and criminal defamation laws were used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or opposed state policies. In certain cases, local authorities arrested individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. Freedom House, in its most recent report, asserted that freedom of expression was weakening in the country and noted the government’s silence regarding direct attacks on free speech. The report stated authorities have used security, defamation, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in media outlets. In some instances the government reportedly withheld public-sector advertising from media outlets that criticized the government, causing some outlets to practice self-censorship.
On January 10, Assam’s prominent academic Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta were arrested in Guwahati and charged with sedition for their comments during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. On January 11, Gohan and Gogoi were awarded interim bail, and Mahanta was awarded absolute bail. On February 15, Gohan and Gogoi were given absolute bail. Gogoi was later arrested on December 10 while protesting the enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act; his case was referred to the National Investigation Agency for sedition, criminal conspiracy, unlawful association, and assertions prejudicial to national integration.
On March 10, filmmakers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals joined a protest in Kolkata against the “unofficial ban” on the Bengali feature film Bhabishyater Bhoot (Spirits of the Future), a political satire by director Anik Datta. Media reported that two days after the film’s release on February 15, most cinema halls in West Bengal refused to screen the film, citing unofficial pressure from authorities. The government’s film certification board had already cleared the film. Following an April 11 Supreme Court order, the West Bengal government paid a fine of two million rupees ($30,000) to the film’s producer.
On April 28, police in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada prevented film director Ram Gopal Varma from addressing a press conference in the city to promote his movie, Lakshmi’s NTR, which portrays the life of former state chief minister N.T. Rama Rao. Varma alleged that police acted under pressure from the ruling Telugu Desam Party, which opposed the movie’s release during national elections. Police claimed that Varma was not allowed to address a press conference as prohibitory orders were in force during the conduct of the elections.
In late April, BJP Party workers in Assam allegedly attacked journalists in the Nalbari, Tinsukia, and Jorhat Districts when the journalists were covering the national elections. On May 6, Trinamool Congress Party workers in West Bengal allegedly attacked journalists covering elections in several locations.
On July 21, Tamil Nadu police arrested a 24-year-old man in Nagapattinam District for consuming beef soup in a Facebook posting. Police filed charges against him for disturbing peace and communal harmony. Four others were arrested on July 11 for allegedly attacking the accused but were later granted bail.
On July 28, two men shot and killed Pradeep Mandal, a journalist with Hindi daily Dainik Jagran in Bihar’s Madhubani town. Media outlets reported that he was targeted for exposing bootleggers’ syndicates in the state. Bihar has imposed a prohibition on the sale and consumption of liquor.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, and publication or distribution of books.
According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, both at the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and, in some areas, blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement. Several journalists reported that the heavy deployment of security forces, accompanied by a communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir from early August, severely hampered the freedom of the press in Jammu and Kashmir. Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Srinagar-based newspaper the Kashmir Times, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in August stating that journalists were not allowed to move freely in Jammu and Kashmir. The petition also claimed the intimidation of journalists by the government and security forces. On September 1, authorities stopped another Kashmiri journalist, Gowhar Geelani, from flying to Germany to participate in a program organized by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
The 2019 World Press Freedom Index identified physical attacks on journalists and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for non-English language journalists, those in rural areas, and female journalists. Journalists working in “sensitive” areas, including Jammu and Kashmir, continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions, and local affiliates reported increased fears of violence. Attacks on journalists by supporters of Hindu nationalist groups increased prior to the May national elections, according to the report. Reports of self-censorship due to fear of official or public reprisal were common, including the use of Section 124a of the penal code, which includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.
The Editors Guild of India claimed the government limited press freedom by exerting political pressure and blocking television transmissions. The guild separately called for authorities to restore communications in Jammu and Kashmir, where a prolonged communications shutdown limited media freedom.
On July 12, Hyderabad police arrested journalist Revathi Pogadadanda, reportedly in connection with a six-month-old case registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Police allegedly did not produce an arrest warrant at the time of arrest and released her on bail a week later. Pogadadanda alleged her arrest was part of the government’s vindictive action against her mentor and senior journalist Ravi Prakash, who had published two interviews online accusing the Telangana chief minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, and a prominent industrialist, P.V. Krishna Reddy, of corruption in a multimillion dollar public transport scam. On October 5, Prakash was arrested on allegations of corporate fraud. The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced both arrests.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were some accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books due to material that government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018.
On April 8, the Manipur High Court ordered the release of television journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem. Police arrested Wangkhem in November 2018 under the National Security Act for criticizing the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his social media posts.
On May 26, the Bengaluru police filed a “first information report”–a report prepared by police upon first receipt of information of a possible crime–against Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Kannada daily Vishwavani, for allegedly publishing derogatory remarks against K. Nikhil, son of then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Police did not make any arrests.
On May 29, six unidentified persons grievously injured journalist Pratap Patra in Balasore District of Odisha. Patra alleged he was attacked after publishing an investigative article on May 8 against a local sand miner, who had been illegally quarrying sand. The article led authorities to levy a fine of 1.6 million rupees ($23,000) on the sand-mining company. Police arrested three individuals on June 2.
On June 8, Uttar Pradesh police arrested and filed criminal charges against a freelance journalist for allegedly posting a video of a woman claiming to be in a relationship with state chief minister Yogi Adityanath. On June 11, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the journalist and chastised the Uttar Pradesh government for the arrest.
Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.
A right to information response by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in 2017 revealed that at least 20,030 websites were blocked at that time. The government proposed rules in February that would give it broad latitude to demand content removal from social media sites, which civil society organizations felt could be used to stifle free speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.
Several individuals in Telangana were either arrested or disciplined during the year for making or posting critical comments through videos and social media platforms about Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao and other leaders of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi Party. On April 24, Telangana police arrested Thagaram Naveen for producing and sharing a derogatory video about Rao. On April 30, Hyderabad police arrested Chirpa Naresh for posting abusive comments and sharing morphed images of Rao and then member of parliament K. Kavitha.
On May 25, police arrested tribal rights activist and academic Jeetrai Hansda for a Facebook post defending his community’s right to eat beef. Hansda was arrested in response to a complaint filed in 2017 by the Hindu nationalist students’ organization ABVP under charges that he violated sections of the Indian Penal Code that govern insults to religious feelings and attempts to promote enmity between groups of people.
On August 14, police in Assam registered a complaint against Gauhati University research scholar Rehana Sultana over a two-year-old Facebook post, allegedly about the consumption of beef. According to media reports, police took note after the two-year-old post resurfaced.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. In August 2018 numerous outlets reported that the Indian Department of Telecom was seeking the views of telecom companies, industry associations, and other stakeholders on ways to block mobile apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Instagram, “in cases where national security or public order are under threat.”
There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, and censorship of online content. There were also reports the government occasionally monitored users of digital media, such as chat rooms and person-to-person communications. The law permits the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive. Both central and state governments have the power to issue directives for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.
In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of the information technology law that restricted content published on social media, but it upheld the government’s authority to issue orders to block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign states or public order” without court approval. In 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.” According to these rules, an order for suspension could be made by a “competent authority” at either the federal or state level.
According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 134 times in 2018, the highest annual figure ever recorded. The NGO also reported that, through August, the central and state governments on 77 occasions temporarily shut down the internet in different locations across the country. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions during periods of political unrest. In February mobile internet connections were blocked for four days in Manipur after protests occurred in the state. Landline connections remained offline for more than one month in parts of the state, while mobile telephone, mobile data, and internet connections took longer to be restored. The government frequently curtailed internet access during periods of violence and curfew in Jammu and Kashmir and occasionally in other parts of the country, particularly Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh. In December, in response to protests concerning the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, internet shutdowns were again used throughout the country. NGOs maintained that local officials often used Section 144 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure that empowers authorities to maintain public peace and stability, as the legal basis for internet shutdowns.
From August to mid-October, the government imposed severe restrictions on communications in Jammu and Kashmir, citing security concerns. On August 4, the government suspended all communications, including internet, mobile telephones, and landlines, across Jammu and Kashmir. Several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court protesting the government’s actions, including a plea by social activist Tehseen Poonawalla, who maintained that the communications shutdown amounted to a suspension of freedom of speech and deprivation of personal liberty under the constitution. On August 13, the Supreme Court granted the government additional time to keep the restrictions in place, noting that the situation was “sensitive.” NGOs maintained that the suspension of communications adversely affected the daily lives of residents, preventing them from reaching loved ones and accessing health care as well as causing financial stress to businesses reliant upon it. Landlines were restored in September. On October 14, postpaid mobile telephone access was restored; government authorities noted text messaging would be restored on January 1. Prepaid mobile telephones and the internet mostly remained blocked.
NGOs asserted that this approach bypassed some safeguards in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, including oversight by a review committee. A UNESCO report stated that one-half of the shutdowns were reported from Jammu and Kashmir, where in the first four months of the year, there were 25 reported cases of internet shutdown.
Requests for user data from internet companies continued to rise. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 37,385 data requests in 2018, a 70 percent rise from 2017. Google also highlighted an increase in government requests for user data in its 2018 Transparency Report, receiving 24,404 user-data disclosure requests. Twitter reported 777 account information requests from the government during the same period.
In its Freedom in the World 2019 country report for India, Freedom House noted that central and state governments frequently suspended mobile internet services to curb collective action by citizens. NGOs also asserted that the legal basis for internet shutdowns was not always clear, creating issues of accountability and legal remedy.
Press outlets reported several instances in which individuals were arrested or detained for online activity. In January an Indian politician from Tamil Nadu was arrested for posting an altered picture of Prime Minister Modi with a begging bowl. Several media outlets reported on a spate of arrests of individuals in connection with social media posts following the February 14 attack on Indian troops in Pulwama District in Jammu and Kashmir. Press outlets reported that police continued to arrest individuals under section 66A of the Information Technology Act for sending offensive messages, despite a Supreme Court ruling striking down the statute.
The Central Monitoring System (CMS) continued to allow governmental agencies to monitor electronic communications in real time without informing the subject or a judge. The CMS is a mass electronic surveillance data-mining program installed by the Center for Development of Telematics, a government-owned telecommunications technology development center. The CMS gives security agencies and income tax officials centralized access to the telecommunication network and the ability to hear and record mobile, landline, and satellite telephone calls and Voice over Internet Protocol, to read private emails and mobile phone text messages, and to track geographical locations of individuals in real time. Authorities can also use it to monitor posts shared on social media and track users’ search histories on search engines, without oversight by courts or parliament. This monitoring facility was available to nine security agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The law governing interception and monitoring provides an oversight mechanism to prevent unauthorized interceptions. Punishment for unauthorized interception includes fines, a maximum prison sentence of three years, or both.