The Congress Party's return to power has already had positive consequences for press freedom. It abolished a controversial anti-terrorist law and extremist Hindus hostile to the press did not enjoy the same degree of impunity as in previous years. However brutal attacks against journalists persisted, on the orders of criminal gangs, political militants and some local authorities. One reporter was murdered for his investigations.
The new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who took over in May 2004, is seen as a liberal. In the first few months of his mandate he abolished the anti-terror law passed by the previous nationalist government. He also acted against the extremist excesses of some religious parties. He took India into a peace process with Pakistan.
This liberalism has nevertheless proved to have its limits. Under pressure from some political allies, it attempted to block sales of the Indian edition of the US daily the International Herald Tribune, for failing to have a licence. With more than 40,000 titles, India boasts the world's largest press, but the authorities are not welcoming to foreign press groups.
Like governments before it, the Congress-run administration is aware that it is confronted by a broadcast and written media that is more and more independent and vigilant about defending the rights it has carved out over recent decades. Indian journalists are always ready to mobilise when their freedoms come under threat.
Violence from religious groups and gangsters
However in some provinces, criminal gangs, political militants, religious and armed groups continue to harass the press. One of the most appalling cases concerns the daily Mahanagar, published in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in the west of the country, which has been targeted by Hindu nationalists and Moslem fundamentalists. The first accuse the paper of being "pro-Moslem" and "anti-nationalist", the second of blaspheming against Islam. In August, the editor of the Hindi edition, Sajid Rashid, was stabbed and wounded by a Moslem fundamentalist who first asked him "Was it you who insulted the Koran?" Four days later, Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist militants physically attacked three Mahanagar journalists and sprayed them with petrol. The editor of the daily Nikhil Wagle who was himself attacked on several occasions, accused Narayan Rane, local leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and former state government head of being behind the attacks. BJP members had already attacked the daily's premises in June. Police made no arrests in any of these cases.
Religious groups and the courts can also prove themselves intolerant. In March, Joginder Singh, editor of the weekly Chandigarh, was excommunicated by Sikh priests accused of having travestied the history of the Sikhs. The same month, a special anti-terrorist court banned the media from covering the trial of some 20 people accused of being in the pay of Pakistan and planting bombs in India. Indian courts regularly have recourse to the British legal principle of contempt of court to ban journalists from covering sensitive trials.
In Tamil Nadu State in the southeast, the government of the populist Selvi J. Jayalalithaa has slightly relaxed its attitude towards the editorial staff of the Tamil-language weekly Nakkheeran, that suffered a three-year campaign of harassment. Its reporter Sivasubramanian was indeed arrested in February but he was released on bail. The death of the notorious bandit Veerappan in October should ease the tension further since the government accused the magazine and its editor, R. R. Gopal, of complicity with the gangster. The weekly that specialises in revelations about misuse of power by the local authorities is still facing legal action in around half a dozen cases.
In Kerala, in the south-west, supporters of the Muslim League, a member of the ruling coalition, took violent exception to journalists following publication of articles about sexual harassment accusations against their leader. They attacked and injured around 20 journalists who were trying to interview the leader as police looked on passively. Under pressure from the journalistic community, the government set up a committee of inquiry but took no Muslim League officials were arrested.
Veeraboina Yadagiri of the daily Andhra Prabha was murdered in the south-eastern Andhra Pradesh State over his reports on trafficking of alcohol implicating local politicians. Police have arrested four suspects.
Journalists are regularly threatened by security forces and armed separatist groups in Manipur State in the north-east and in August the government banned the local television channel ISTV "in the public interest". The authorities were apparently unhappy that a news programme in the local Metei language was such a big success. The channel later won a court appeal against the ban.
In the neighbouring province of Assam, there is still no news of the fate of Indra Mohan Hakasam, the correspondent in Goalpara of the Assamese-language daily Amar Assam, who was kidnapped in June 2003 by separatist rebels of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
New hopes for Kashmir
No journalists were murdered in 2004 in Kashmir in the north-east but at least five were wounded, in a grenade attack mounted by a radical separatist group against the daily Greater Kashmir. Elsewhere there is still a high level of separatist and security forces threat against journalists. The year was marked by a historic visit, the first for more than 50 years, of a group of Pakistani reporters to the province disputed by India and Pakistan.
- 1 journalist was killed
- 23 journalists physically were attacked
- 13 media censored or ransacked
- and 1 journalist was excommunicated