4. On human rights organizations
The government said the Indian Constitution provides for adequate safeguards under various laws for protection of human rights and pointed to the presence of human rights commissions at the national and state level as rights watchdogs.
5. Intimidation of academics, journalists
The government pointed out that the Centre had issued a special advisory to all states and union territories regarding the safety of journalists. It said the Indian constitution provides for freedom of expression under Article 19. Discussion, debate and dissent is a part of the country’s democracy, it said, stressing that the government attached the highest importance to the safety and security of all its residents including journalists.
6. Internet shutdowns
The statement said that temporary suspension of internet and telecom services was ordered to maintain law and order and emphasized that the orders to shut internet could only be issued by the top home ministry official at the centre and in the state governments concerned. These orders are also reviewed by a panel headed by the cabinet secretary or the chief secretary, the top civil servant in the country and the state government, respectively.
7. Freezing Amnesty International’s assets
Amnesty International had received permission to receive foreign funds under the foreign funding law FCRA only once and that too 20 years ago, the statement said. Since December 2000, Amnesty International, despite its repeated applications, has been denied FCRA approval by successive governments since as per law it is not eligible to get such approval. However, in order to circumvent the FCRA regulations, Amnesty U.K. remitted large amounts of money to four entities registered in India, by misclassifying the remittance as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the I&B ministry statement said.
A significant amount of foreign funds was also remitted to Amnesty India without MHA’s approval under FCRA, which the Centre said, was a mala fide rerouting of money in contravention of the law. The statement recalled that the previous UPA government had also rejected Amnesty’s applications to receive foreign funds, which at one point, also led to the international human rights body suspending its operations once.
The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava while speaking to journalists said that,
“The political judgements of Freedom House are as inaccurate and distorted as their maps. For example, in the COVID-19 situation, there is a widespread appreciation in the world of our response, of our high recovery rate and of our low fatality rate. India has robust institutions and well-established democratic practices. We do not need sermons especially from those who cannot get their basics right.”
The ‘map’ issue was also zeroed upon by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who said at an interaction,
“I am concerned about this group which doesn’t get the Indian map correct. The Indian map on their website is wrong. They should first get our map right.”
Sitharaman was most probably referring to the map featured in the Freedom House’s tweet on the report, which did not include the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Facts about the Freedom House Report and the Government Clarifications
The fact of the matter is at least 55 journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats for reportage on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown from March 25 to May 31, 2020, as per a report prepared by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG).
According to the group, the highest number of attacks on media persons were reported from Uttar Pradesh (11 journalists), followed by Jammu and Kashmir (6 journalists) and Himachal Pradesh (5). What is noteworthy is that all three states and UTs are ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to which the Vice President, the Prime Minister and the Home Minister belong.
Moreover, as per the latest report titled Behind Bars: Arrests and Detentions of Journalists in India 2010-2020 (published by Free Speech Collective), in recent years a sharp rise has been recorded in the “criminal cases lodged against journalists in India for their work, with a majority of cases in BJP-ruled states, has contributed to the deterioration in the climate for free speech in India.”
In the last decade, the report further states, at least 154 journalists were either arrested, detained, interrogated or served show-cause notices for their professional work and notably more than 40% of these instances were in 2020. This year at least three journalists were killed due to their professional work. Out of three two belonged to Uttar Pradesh and the third killing took place in Tamil Nadu.
But it would be a mistake to think that in other states and UTs, which have non-BJP governments, journalists were totally safe and free to perform their professional duty. According to The Wire’s report by Sukanya Shantha, in Maharashtra (ruled by a non-BJP alliance) close to 15 instances of criminal cases were registered against journalists for highlighting failures in the state administration’s COVID-19 response. “Over two dozen other scribes were served notices and sought explanation; in some cases, defamation suits were filed, along with lakhs of rupees sought as compensation,” Shantha reported in August.
Moreover, “there have also been instances of multiple cases being registered against a single reporter or editor. Almost all stories are related to COVID-19 and reporters claim the top state administration has given a free hand to the district authorities to target them.”