Sections of media in India feel their voice is being stifled Image Credit: Pixabay

Siddique Kappan, a Delhi-based journalist was on his way to meet family members of a gang-rape victim when he was arrested near Hathras on Wednesday. A day later, he and his three companions were charged with sedition and booked under India’s draconian anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. Their crime, police said, was that the four are associated with Popular Front of India (PFI), a Kerala-based Muslim organisation. The police in Uttar Pradesh where Hathras is located say the PFI is an extremist outfit planning to instigate disturbance. The PFI, not banned by any state, has a website, twitter account and has denied these accusations.

Kappan’s media colleagues have also dismissed the police allegations and demanded his release. They say Kappan was on an assignment to speak to the family members of the gang-rape victim who died after she was brutally assaulted near her home. The girl’s family has said the police cremated her body in the night after locking them inside their house, an incident that has sparked national outrage and raised concerns over India’s hierarchical social system that subjugates members of the girl’s Valmiki caste. The gang-rape suspects are Thakur, a powerful caste that occupies the upper end of the social pyramid. Incidents of police taking sides of higher castes in such incidents are not rare.

Observers say the arrest of journalist Kappan, a Muslim, under terror law is an attempt by the police to contain the outrage and deflect public attention from their own incompetence in handling the rape-murder case. After arresting him, the police claimed to have busted a “foreign conspiracy” to embarrass the government in Uttar Pradesh. The police’s absurd story has the backing of the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a monk-politician who shares the caste of the suspects.

Kappan’s arrest is not an isolated incident and follows a disturbing pattern in India where journalists are routinely arrested for exposing political and bureaucratic incompetence. Between March and September, a media watchdog report said, 55 journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on Covid-19. For example, on May 11, Dhaval Patel, editor of a Gujarati language news portal Face of Nation, was booked with sedition for writing about political fallout of the rapid rise of coronavirus cases in Gujarat.

Not surprisingly, India’s place in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index dropped to 142 in 2020 from 136 in 2015. India falls behind Myanmar, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The arrests of journalists and the watchdog’s low ranking reflect poorly on India, a large nation expected to uphold principles of democracy and allow media a free hand to highlight abuse of power by police, bureaucracy and politicians.