In a significant development, multiple media organizations and journalist collectives across India have joined forces to appeal to the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, seeking the judiciary’s intervention to safeguard press freedom in the country. The appeal comes in the wake of recent raids conducted by the Delhi Police on the residences of 46 writers, editors, journalists, and professionals associated with the online news portal ‘NewsClick’. The letter highlights concern about the misuse of investigative agencies against the media and calls for the establishment of guidelines to protect journalists and their work.
“…the developments over the past 24 hours have left us no option but to appeal to your good conscience to take cognisance and intervene before it is too late and an autocratic police state becomes the norm,”the letter says.
What Actually Happened?
On October 3, 2023, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police executed searches at the homes of 46 individuals linked to ‘NewsClick’. This operation resulted in the arrest of two individuals under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the confiscation of their mobile phones and computers. The invocation of UAPA in such cases has raised alarm, as it equates journalism with terrorism. The letter underscores the dangerous implications of prosecuting journalism as terrorism, citing historical precedents.
“The invocation of UAPA is especially chilling. Journalism cannot be prosecuted as ‘terrorism: Enough instances in history abound to tell us where that eventually goes,”the letter says.
Press Freedom Under Threat
The letter emphasizes that, in recent times, Indian investigating agencies have been weaponized against the press. Sedition and terrorism charges are increasingly being filed against journalists as a means of harassment and to stifle a free press. Such actions undermine the democratic fabric of society, and journalists find themselves working under the constant threat of reprisal.
The Call for Judicial Intervention
The letter presents a set of proposals to address the pressing issue of curtailing press freedom and the persecution of journalists:
1. Establishment of Norms: The letter calls for the creation of norms to discourage the arbitrary seizure of journalists’ phones and laptops. It cites a pending Supreme Court case (Ram Ramaswamy & Ors. v. Union of India, WP (Cr) No. 138/2021) and the need to protect sources and personal data contained in these devices.
2. Guidelines for Interrogations and Seizures: It suggests evolving guidelines for interrogating journalists and conducting seizures to ensure that these actions are not conducted as fishing expeditions with no relevance to an actual offence.
3. Accountability of State Agencies: The letter seeks mechanisms to hold state agencies and individual officers accountable if they overstep the law or mislead courts with vague and open-ended investigations against journalists.
“As journalists and news professionals, we are always ready and willing to cooperate with any bona fide investigation. However, ad hoc, sweeping seizures and interrogations surely cannot be considered acceptable in any democratic country, let alone one that has begun advertising itself as the ‘mother of democracy’”the letter read.
A Plea for Press Freedom
The letter reaffirms the commitment of journalists to cooperate with genuine investigations while decrying ad hoc, sweeping seizures and interrogations as unacceptable in a democratic nation. It implores the Chief Justice to take cognizance of the situation before an autocratic police state becomes the norm.
The letter has received the support of various media organizations and journalist collectives, including Digipub News India Foundation, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Club of India, New Delhi, Foundation for Media Professionals, Network of Women in Media, India, Chandigarh Press Club, National Alliance of Journalists, Delhi Union of Journalists, Kerala Union of Working Journalists, Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists, Free Speech Collective, Mumbai, Mumbai Press Club, Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, Press Association, Gauhati Press Club, Indian Journalists Union, Kolkata Press Club, and Working News Camermen’s Association (WNCA). These organizations emphasize the need for journalists to be treated within the boundaries of the law while ensuring the protection of press freedom.