Internet freedom and independent press in 2023 – a view from India

Apar Gupta, founder and director of the Internet Freedom Foundation
8th November 2023
13:00 - 14:00

The speaker

Apar Gupta is the founder and director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which defends online freedom, privacy, and net neutrality in India.  He is also a lawyer and a writer on democracy and technology. In 2015, he and others launched, a public campaign that fought for net neutrality and stopped the introduction of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in India. Gupta and his team at IFF regularly file petitions and undertake advocacy campaigns to defend online freedom, privacy, and net neutrality.

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The video

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Seven takeaways from the talk and discussion: 

1. In India, the government is attempting to expand its control over the media. One of the examples Gupta mentioned was the impact of the recent Digital Personal Data Protecting Act 2023 on restricting the information that can be disclosed through Right to Information requests. 

“I think it's just the discovery, the querying of information, which will become much more limited and this act acts as a legal basis towards that,” he said. “The union government is looking at controlling more and more of the journalism space in India with a view towards not only crushing independent journalism but actively making it partisan.” This could look like impeding small and medium-sized outlets from operating while not enforcing legislation against “larger corporate entity entities, which then also have a media arm.” 

2. Journalists in Kashmir face a repressive environment and threats. The situation for the media in the territory of Jammu and Kashmir is particularly difficult since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought previously this partially autonomous region under the direct control of the Indian government in 2019.

“The journalists who are there have all always been under a very repressive environment with security laws, they have been arrested, preventively detained and there are a large number of them which face threats very frequently, and they operate in such a difficult environment knowing that they can be arrested at any point in time,” Gupta said.

3. Internet shutdowns hinder accurate reporting. A communications shutdown was imposed on Kashmir for several months following the events of 2019. This tactic is being repeated in the Indian state of Manipur, where mobile internet has been temporarily banned for millions of people, pushing them back into a pre-digital age, Gupta explained. 

“[The government] serves its own interest in terms of avoiding any kind of questioning which may emerge from political voices reporting on the ground,” Gupta said of this kind of measure. He doubts that these shutdowns are effective in preventing violence – the official reason given for their implementation. “I think it is due to the state interest in controlling information, in setting a narrative, that we have shut down the internet,” he said.

4. Journalists should report on the impact of internet shutdowns on ordinary people. As internet shutdowns become more frequent in India, Gupta believes journalists should report on their impact on the population. “There will be a need for journalists to report it with a deeper level of introspection as to what damage it causes to ordinary people. Ordinary people, who have access to the Internet in very huge numbers in India, need to be front and centre of journalism as to the impact it's causing on them. It's only when their voices are heard, they're reported, that they gain legitimacy,” he said. 

Gupta stressed this point further: “When it becomes a human story, I think that is when you start seeing a degree of positive movement in the realm of policy and politics.”

5. Journalists in India are under surveillance. “Surveillance today, for many friends who are journalists, is somewhat of a feature of their job. They’re stepping into journalism knowing that it's not the old days where you notice somebody following you awkwardly, like in a Pink Panther movie, but it's somebody who will have access to your emails, your messages, your personal conversations, and it's happening very frequently in India,” Gupta said. 

As well as digital surveillance, however, there is also another trend used to monitor journalists in the country: “The use of very factually flimsy cases under national security laws in India, which lead to wide-ranging device seizures, in which a [journalist]'s phone, laptop, tablet, is confiscated,” he said. A recent example of this was the raid on the homes and offices of journalists working at the news site NewsClick. The possibility that Indian journalists may be surveilled or face raids like NewsClick reporters did makes it difficult for them to report on sensitive topics like politics, the economy, society, and religion, Gupta said. 

6. Criminalising disinformation may be counterproductive in some contexts. Despite large amounts of disinformation circulating online, Gupta is sceptical of some wide-ranging regulatory approaches. “I think creating a new law, which makes it a criminal offence to spread disinformation in isolation is somewhat counterproductive, especially in settings where you have post-colonial countries like India, where the application and the practice of the law quite often is partisan,” Gupta said. 

A different way to counter disinformation, Gupta suggested, may be through an independent public broadcast system. “I think public broadcasting with autonomy from institutions essentially is what is needed because you also need to deepen and strengthen the common social values which are under threat through disinformation today,” Gupta said.

7. Female journalists in India face gendered harassment online. “Female journalists in India are specifically being targeted and historically have been targeted for their political opinions, irrespective of whether they questioned government power or they even are partisan toward the government at a given point in time, and it is gendered abuse,” Gupta said. This includes sexualised abuse. 

Unequal access to the internet is another factor that disadvantages Indian women online, including journalists. “The primary problem which comes through when I talk to my female friends who are journalists is that they say that there's a sense of crowding which happens online, in which, especially in India, men seem to drive the conversation, or enter the conversation, or just send so many messages, and that's across social media, and then it inevitably becomes gendered. And the basis for that is that Internet access in India is deeply unequal,” he explained.

The bottom line 

The law can be weaponised against journalists and is increasingly being used for this end across the world. Rules and regulations concerning a wide variety of issues including data protection, disinformation and national security can be used by governments to exercise control over independent reporting. In India, efforts to control media narrative are expanding and they often involve the internet, from the extreme example of a communications shutdown to restricting information disclosed to reporters on the basis of data protection. Online spaces are now central and necessary for everyday life, as well as communications and reporting, and access to them is important. However, even when faced with increasingly difficult circumstances, journalists still have the opportunity to centre ordinary people’s experiences and tell their stories.

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