Condemning the heightening attack on free expression and democratic rights
The recent raids by the Delhi Police on 46 houses of journalists connected with the Indian news portal NewsClick is shocking. More unsettling is the arrest of Prabir Purkayastha, its Editor-in-Chief, and Amith Chakravorty, its Head of Human Resources, on the pretext of investigating them for a “terror case with Chinese links”. The Indian media has reported that the police has blatantly disregarded the legally sanctioned procedures in arresting the senior journalist and his colleague. The authorities are yet to make known any material on the website with links to any “terrorist activity” or “Chinese propaganda”.
We join the progressive media, civil society organisations and activists in India to condemn in no uncertain terms this brazen attack by the government on the free media. Harassment and intimidation of the independent media by the misuse of the police and state agencies for narrow political gains is part of a growing trend in a country claimed to be the ‘Mother of Democracy.’ Many commentators have likened this trend to the stifling times of the Emergency in India during the 1970s, although a State of Emergency has not been formally declared now.
The growing assault on free expression and democratic rights in South Asia is no longer a country-specific development. Neither is it confined to specific nation states. It is a regional phenomenon, signalling a new phase of democratic backsliding in South Asia. In recent weeks, journalists in Bangladesh have been subjected to enormous pressure, by way of judicial harassment, police violence, online harassment, attacks at reporting assignments, and intimidation of journalists’ families. We particularly take note of the recent jailing of Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddian Elan, two leading human rights campaigners atatched Odhikar, Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, the government has tabled and is threatening to pass what it calls an ‘Online Safety Bill’, a legislation that provides a draconian legal framework to potentially stifle dissent and free expression. Such moves have a chilling effect on journalists and rights defenders, inhibiting them from speaking truth to power.
The latest developments in India and Sri Lanka ring an alarm bell for all of us in South Asia who care about preserving our democratic rights and freedoms. In their decided attempts to target journalists, or to harass or silence other dissenting voices, our governments have begun to employ the new tactic of portraying journalists and citizen-activists who dare to expose the misdeeds of those in power as “anti-national” and threats to national security. By denying the citizens the democratic space for critical questioning, dissent and debate, and deploying the coercive power of the state in full force against the media and the media professionals, our governments seem to show how impatient they are to drag our countries into a new phase of authoritarian decay. This indeed is bad political news for the whole of South Asia.
Therefore, struggles for media freedom in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the region is to be viewed as integral to the struggle for democracy in South Asia as a whole. Amid the heightening attacks on free media and the right to free expression, we must respond collectively as South Asians. We must resist tyranny in all forms, and fight to restore and strengthen our fundamental rights and democratic freedoms. We must resolve to look out for each other, assert our rights, and defend our freedoms within and beyond our individual nation-states.
We demand the immediate release of Prabir Purkayastha and Amith Chakravorty. We condemn the actions by governments in South Asia designed to silence the critical and independent media by using the stringent national security legislation. We also urge all the South Asians concerned with media freedom, human rights and rule of law to work together to defend democracy in the region through solidarity and joint action beyond national boundaries.