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India Uses Pandemic To Try To Muzzle Media, Press Freedom Advocates Say

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a public health emergency, getting the public accurate information is critical, even if it's politically inconvenient for some leaders. In India, free speech advocates say the government there is using the coronavirus crisis to muzzle media it doesn't like. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Siddharth Varadarajan is a veteran journalist. He's written for and edited several Indian newspapers. He's won awards and has been a frequent critic of figures in power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going to do a full political debate. Siddharth Varadarajan, senior journalist, joining me.

FRAYER: As such, he's had brushes with the law. Politicians have filed defamation complaints. But now, in a pandemic, he's facing criminal charges that could land him in jail.

SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN: Two separate cases on the basis of an unspecified tweet and an unspecified article.

FRAYER: They stem from a story last month in his current publication, The Wire, about how a top ruling party politician attended a big Hindu gathering in violation of social distancing rules. The politician tweeted video of himself...

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Sanskrit).

FRAYER: ...Chanting Sanskrit mantras there. But a quote in the story about this was misattributed. Editors fixed the error and ran a correction. Yet, a day later, Varadarajan was charged with transmitting obscene material and spreading rumors. He believes this is all political.

VARADARAJAN: The police are happy to register a bogus case. The aim of the game is to harass, intimidate and send a message to the media at large.

FRAYER: That there will be consequences if you embarrass a government official. Health reporter Vidya Krishnan knows that well. Her articles have criticized the government's response to the coronavirus and faced a huge backlash online.

VIDYA KRISHNAN: I was really surprised at the level of intimidation - the rape threats and the death threats and demanding arrests.

FRAYER: A government account even tweeted a screenshot of one of her stories with a big red stamp labeling it fake news.

ALIYA IFTIKHAR: Freedom of the press was already vulnerable in India even prior to this pandemic.

FRAYER: Aliya Iftikhar is with the Committee to Protect Journalists. She recalls how the Hindu nationalist government took two TV channels off air earlier this year. They'd reported on how police failed to halt killings of Muslims during riots in Delhi. There was a huge outcry, and the stations were back on air within hours. India's information minister, Prakash Javadekar, told reporters...

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PRAKASH JAVADEKAR: Press freedom is absolutely essential in democratic setup.

FRAYER: But he said it has to be used responsibly. India can be a tinderbox where misinformation can get people killed. In a pandemic, the government enjoys sweeping powers to control information to protect public health. But Iftikhar says politicians are abusing that.

IFTIKHAR: To basically criminalize anything that could be characterized as inaccurate reporting or fake news.

FRAYER: Last month, the government asked India's Supreme Court for even more power - to allow it to censor all coronavirus coverage. The court denied that. For editor Siddharth Varadarajan, going to court may take him away from publishing the news, and that may be exactly what the government wants, he says.

VARADARAJAN: It's the process that is really punishing. Cases can drag on for years, and there are fees. But I would say that the major burden is wastage of time.

FRAYER: He says he'd rather be holding those in power to account in this time of pandemic.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "SOLEIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.