NEW DELHI, India — In India, the truth might set you free. Or it might land you behind bars. Or even dead.
Take the case of Naveen Sorinjee, a TV reporter jailed in Karnataka for exposing an assault on young couples by a far-right Hindu group. Sorinjee has inspired a hunger strike and a slew of editorials. But more than a two months after his arrest, he’s still in the slammer. And he’s not alone.
India this year plunged to its lowest ranking on Reporters Without Borders’world press freedom index since 2002, falling to 140 out of 179 countries, as governments around the country cracked down on free speech and allowed criminals, political “workers” and armed groups to attack journalists with impunity.
Meanwhile, since the right to information law gave rise to the anti-corruption movement, the number of bureaucrats, activists, and even policemen who were harassed, beaten, jailed and murdered for daring to expose government and corporate malfeasance has continued to grow, according to the Asia Center for Human Rights (ACHR).
Though they’re rarely considered together, India’s crackdown on free speech and its assault on muckraking activists are both part of an escalating war on whistleblowers that is intended to squash any objection to the near-absolute power of the state.
Over the past five years, some 150 whistleblowers have allegedly been harassed or jailed for exposing corruption, while as many as 20 have been killed.
The latest trend: State and local governments are exploiting India’s notoriously slow court system to land activists behind bars or saddle them with criminal charges that may take decades to resolve.
Even the national government has joined the fray, going after aid groups that receive international funding in a smear campaign intended to discredit them as anti-national and then starve them of cash.
“The government is absolutely complicit in these activities,” said ACHR’s director Suhas Chakma. “Without the cooperation of the local authorities, these cases can never be done. In some cases you will see the complicity even of the judiciary.”
A reporter for a local channel called Kasturi Newz24, Sorinjee ran afoul of the authorities in Karnataka after a report on an incident in July in which members of a far-right group called the Hindu Jagarana Vedike allegedly attacked and beat up several young men and women for daring to attend a birthday party unchaperoned.
Though he’d exposed the incident — one of a string of alleged assaults perpetrated by far-right groups in Mangalore in the name of moral policing — Sorinjee was charged with participating in it.
According to India’s Hindu newspaper, in November he was arrested and charged with“rioting with deadly weapons,” criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, and using criminal force on a woman with the intention of outraging her modesty, in Indian legal-speak. Citing the obvious video evidence, Sorinjee and his supporters say those were the activities his news report depicted — not anything he did himself.
In January, a group of reporters, editors and activists held a three-day hunger strike to highlight Sorinjee’s plight. But nearly a month later, he’s still languishing in jail. And even if Twitter rumors that the authorities are poised to drop the charges against him prove true, he will have spent nearly a quarter of the year behind bars. And, again due to the glacial pace of India’s legal system, he will have virtually no recourse to the law for compensation for false arrest.
The case is not unique to Mangalore, to Karnataka, or to the Hindu right.
“It happens all over the country,” said Chakma. “It can happen anywhere, any day.”
So it seems, according to a random sampling.
In August 2011, 35-year-old activist Shehla Mahsood — who’d filed countless right-to-information applications and leveled allegations of corruption against local politicians associated with illegal diamond mining — was shot dead on her way to an anti-corruption protest in Madhya Pradesh.
In February 2012, 42-year-old Premnath Jha, who’d filed right-to-information applications regarding several construction projects in Maharashtra, was gunned down while riding home on his motorcycle.
In Gujarat in 2009, 50-year-old Purshottam Chauhan, who’d sought information about a costly project that the local village council had purportedly undertaken with government funds, was badly beaten by a gang of thugs.
Meanwhile, in October 2011 in Haryana, journalist Ramesh Singla, who’d been writing articles about the illegal mining business in the state, was killed in a suspected hit and run. And in September 2011, cub reporter Lingaram Kodopi, a member of one of Chhattisgarh’s indigenous tribes, was arrested as a so-called middleman between nefarious activists and the Maoist rebels waging a simmering insurrection in his troubled home state.
And the list goes on.
The catalyst for these false (or dubious) prosecutions, assaults and murders was the passage of the groundbreaking Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005.
By giving ordinary citizens the right to access virtually any government document, the law cracked open a tortuous, bureaucratic system that had been a virtual black box since the days of India’s colonization. It made refusal to divulge information a jailable offense. And, even if it did not result in a rash of convictions, it began to make the corrupt nexus among politicians, career bureaucrats and corporations politically untenable.
Now that nexus is striking back — not only against right-to-information activists, but against all forms of scrutiny and dissent.
Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, novelist-turned-activist Arundhati Roy and Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, among others, have been charged with sedition for political speech that authorities deemed to be “anti-India.”
Right-wing gadflies have reported mysterious server failures for their Twitter accounts and blogs, following a government crackdown that was supposedly limited to the suppression of specific offensive or inflammatory images.
Anybody with something to say, it seems, is an enemy of the state.