Several media associations have written to the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud seeking the court’s intervention to put an end to the alleged “repressive” use of investigating agencies “against the media” and demanding guidelines on police seizures of the electronic devices of journalists.
The letter was written by 16 press associations in the wake of a raid by Delhi police’s Special Cell into the residences of journalists, editors and writers associated with the news portal ‘Newsclick’.
“Our fear is that State actions against the media have been taken beyond measure, and should they be allowed to continue in the direction they are headed, it may be too late for corrective or remedial steps. It is, therefore, our collective view that the higher judiciary must now intervene to put an end to the increasingly repressive use of investigating agencies against the media,” the letter stated.
The associations said that 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,” it added.
The letter has been sent by media associations such as Digipub News India Foundation, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Club of India, Foundation of Media Professionals, National Alliance of Journalists, Network of Women in Media, Chandigarh Press Club, 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 of India and Guwahati Press Club.
The letter said that October 3 raids led to the arrest of two persons under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and the seizure of mobile phones and computers without ensuring the integrity of their data–a basic protocol that is essential to due process.
“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,” it added.
The letter further said, “The fact is that today, a large section of journalists in India finds itself working under the threat of reprisal. And it is imperative that the judiciary confronts power with a fundamental truth–that there is a Constitution to which we are all answerable.”
It stated that there have been many instances over the past few years when assaults on the free press by the State have required judicial intervention, and we (journalists)continue to pursue such cases.
“But 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,” said the association to CJI.
The letter urged the judiciary to uphold the values of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Constitution.
The letter stated that wide powers of investigation are given to the State on the assumption of bonafide on the part of its agencies.
“Equally, a wide immunity against coercion must be read into the constitutional provisions of free speech, and methods must be devised against police overreach–especially given the repeated misuse of these powers,” it added.
It claimed that the country’s investigating agencies have been “misused” and “weaponised” against the press.
Sedition and terrorism cases have been filed against editors and reporters, and multiple, sequential and/or frivolous FIRs have been used as an instrument of harassment against journalists, they said.
The letter cited the case of Siddique Kappan who was arrested under UAPA and spent more than two years in jail before getting bail and also highlighted the death of father Stan Swamy, who died while in custody under UAPA charges.
“The tragic death of Father Stan Swamy in custody is a reminder of how indifferent the authorities seem to have become towards human life under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’,” it stated.
They urged the CJI to frame norms to discourage the seizure of journalists’ phones and laptops on a whim, as has been the case. Evolve guidelines for interrogation of journalists and for seizures from them, to ensure that these are not undertaken as fishing expeditions with no bearing on an actual offence, the association asked.
They further asked to find ways to ensure the accountability of State agencies and individual officers who are found overstepping the law or willfully misleading courts with vague and open-ended investigations against journalists for their journalistic work.