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Press Freedom In India: Where Bail Is The Exception, Jail Is The Rule

Since Independence, vernacular journalists in India have been bearing the wrath of the state, sometimes for telling the truth and in other times just for not toeing the government line

Siddique Kappan who is still languishing behind the jail
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When the issue of fundamental rights was being debated in our constituent assembly, prominent nationalist leaders including Professor KT Shah and Seth Damodar Swarup pointed to the lack of safeguards and rights granted to the press. They questioned why freedom of press found no distinct mention in our Constitution. To this, the chairman of the drafting committee Dr. BR Ambedkar replied that the “Press has no special rights which cannot be exercised by a citizen in his individual capacity. They are citizens when they write, and are merely exercising their right of expression.”

But in the following years, the state has often exceeded its monopolistic authority to clamp down on free speech and expression. Mediapersons who have done commendable work in unearthing stories that go unnoticed, or dared to speak the truth, or opposed the dispensation's straightjacketing have suffered incarceration with criminal cases slammed against them. Often many continue to languish in jails on unsubstantiated charges, a trend that disproportionately affects journalists writing for regional platforms in local languages.

One such detention that incited public sentiment was AltNews co-founder Muhammad Zubair's arrest for an allegedly 'offensive tweet' dating back to 2018. His incarceration generated immense hue and cry and the Supreme Court ultimately granted him bail in July 2022, nearly a month after he was arrested.

Likewise, activist-journalist Teesta Setalvad was granted interim bail by the Supreme Court on September 2, 2022 in a case of alleged forgery and fabrication of records in connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots cases. Setalvad was detained in Mumbai by the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad on June 25 and the apex court ordered her release "based on peculiar facts, including the fact that the appellant happens to be a lady," The Hindu reported.

But many other journalists who dared to dissent in their reportage have not been spared so early. Here is a list of media professionals whose bail applications have been doing rounds, with 'freedom' eluding the picture.

Siddique Kappan

Keralite journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested in October 2020 while he was on his way to Uttar Pradesh to report on the horrific Hathras gangrape case, when a 19-year-old Dalit girl was brutally raped and murdered. The police claimed he had links with now-banned outfit Popular Front of India (PFI) and was plotting a conspiracy to incite violence in the state.

Kappan was subsequently charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or the “anti-terror law” and has remained imprisoned for over two years. While the apex court granted him bail on these charges in February 2021, a separate money laundering case was pressed against him by the Enforcement Directorate the same month.

Kappan continues to fight for bail in a Lucknow court presently and his prolonged detention continues to pierce the journalistic conscience in more ways than one.

Rupesh Kumar Singh

Rupesh is an independent journalist credited for his path breaking stories on state violence targeting the Adivasi community and his reportage has been published in Hindi language magazines Samyantar and Dastak. He was arrested by the Jharkhand police in July 2022 following a nine-hour long raid at his house to probe alleged Maoist links after a case was filed against him under the UAPA.

Jharkhand police spokesperson Amol V Homkar confirmed his detention in a comment to The Indian Express, revealing that Kumar “was arrested for his links with Communist Party of India (Maoist) leaders in the case that was registered against Maoist veteran Prashant Bose.”

Kumar had earlier reported about the gruesome killing of an Adivasis in the state’s police custody in 2017. He was also one amongst the 40 Indian journalists whose phones were reportedly hacked through the Pegasus spyware. His quest for securing bail in the case has been stretched for long and the United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists has urged for his immediate and unconditional release.

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Amir Hamza

Hamza was arrested while covering the Agnipath protests in Patna on June 18 and charged under Section 353 of the Indian Penal Code for obstructing a police officer on duty.

His advocates have argued that Hamza was in fact roughed up and shoved by police officials and was not allowed to cover the protests. His bail plea is yet to see the light of the day.

Mohd. Manan Dar

Manan Gulzar Dar, a Kashmiri freelance journalist, was arrested in October 2021 by India's National Investigation Agency on suspicions of his links with terrorist organisations. He too, suffered the wrath of the stringent UAPA with a trial court extending his custody period. His bail application is scheduled to be heard in the Delhi High Court on November 14, LiveLaw reported.

The restrictive bail conditions under such legislations continue to function as tools in the hands of the dispensation to silence its critics. Coupled with a trend of indiscriminate arrests and a plethora of criminal investigations ready to be launched, periodic attempts have been made to muzzle strong voices and hold the fourth estate hostage in the country.

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