India 'using archaic laws' to punish journos, says WAN-Ifra

WAN-Ifra's global president has written to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi urging an end to legal actions he says "threaten to undermine press freedom".

In a letter to the prime minister, WAN-Ifra president Fernando De Yarza Lopez-Madrazo says the association is "particularly alarmed" by the increasing use of First Information Reports(FIRs), the application of section124A of the Indian Penal Code - which he describes as a "colonial-era sedition law" - and the recourse to broader criminal charges to punish journalists "simply for doing their jobs".

He says that in the most recent case - requiring the Supreme Court to step in on February 9 to provide interim protection from arrest - FIRs were filed against journalists Zafar Agha, Vinod Jose, Ananth Nath, Paresh Nath, Mrinal Pande and Rajdeep Sardesai over the same allegations across multiple states, including Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.

"The journalists were charged with sedition on January 28, with the accompanying FIR stating that they had 'shared misinformed news and instigated violence' via Twitter messages sent as part of their coverage of demonstrations two days earlier by farmers opposed to agricultural reforms.

"More broadly, and according to best-available reports, we estimate that since the beginning of 2020 at least 50 journalists at the local, regional and national level have been subjected to legal jeopardy as a result of their reporting, with an even higher number facing criminal action under other pretexts."

WAN-Ifra expresses its deep concern that "such persistent recourse to legal action suggests a systematic and barely disguised attempt to criminalise professional journalism", a claim , it says, evidenced by a growing pattern of legal cases, personal threats and intimidation against independent news media organisations, individual editors, journalists and freelancers.

"Furthermore, we interpret the consistency of these actions as severely contributing to the undermining of critical, independent reporting in a way that that risks unleashing a chilling effect across the profession."

He urges Narendra Modi to "reiterate the fundamental right of journalists to report freely, fairly and critically", and to ensure local government and law enforcement professionals acknowledge the essential role of a free press in contributing to democratic discourse.

"In the interests of safeguarding the right to information for all, we respectfully call on you to denounce the targeting of journalists and independent news organisations and to condemn those who do so as having no place in a society that values freedom of expression.

De Yarza Lopez-Madrazo finishes his letter by asking for a response from the prime minister, "at your earliest convenience".

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