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Defending the Defenders: Guwahati meeting

Date : 05/12/2018

“Defending the Defenders”, a meeting between lawyers and journalists was held on the 5th of December at the Guwahati Office of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), an organization dedicated to the cause of human rights through the legal recourse.

The meeting started off with an introductory note by Debasmita Ghosh, Director, HRLN, Guwahati Chapter. She introduced the broad agenda for the meeting emphasizing on building a network between lawyers and journalists, which would involve defending journalists from the various problems that they face in their profession. This was followed by a short introduction by the persons present in the meeting comprising of Advocates, Journalists and Interns.

Following this, Laxmi Murthy, a Bangalore based journalist currently working with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and formerly of Himal Southasian, opened the discussion. She started off by speaking of the need to intervene in issues faced by RTI activists, journalists, writers and the like thereby making the working of a network important. Further, there was talk of early and proactive legal intervention. Various questions such as persons being booked by the NIA and the relation of Article 19 of the Constitution pertaining to the freedom of expression were raised. Moreover, the related issue of reasonable restrictions were brought up and as to whether they were indeed reasonable.

She also said that journalists require help and often have faced attacks citing the example of Parag Das, who was killed years ago due to voicing his opinion. This is intended to silence and stifle voices and she mentioned how the initiative becomes crucial in this respect and therefore must take a broader view of the right to freedom of expression. She moreover explained that hardly any convictions have taken place of the ones responsible for the killing of journalists and people have rarely gone to jail for the same which is striking in a functional democracy. In recent memory, the killing of Gauri Lankesh draws attention where arrests were made only four to five months after. Thus, a starting point could be taking up old cases of journalist killings and analyse as to where the system failed.

Laxmi Murthy also said that cases from the 90s must be taken up. Further, the example of Rising Kashmir editor, Shujat Bukhari’s murder in broad daylight was brought up. As reiterated, it is important for lawyers to intervene as journalists frequently face physical attacks and intimidation and even death threats as faced by Bukhari, a year prior to his death. The legal mechanisms should thus be used to tackle these grave problems. Murthy furthermore brought up the issue of online trolling and how people are subject to death threats via the social media platform. In this context, a discussion ensued on the relation between censorship and social media-the right balance with freedom of speech which again brought into question the relation between the fundamental right and reasonable restrictions. The discussion further ventured upon defamation and whether criminal defamation should be scrapped when civil defamation already exists noting that such suits were more often than not brought upon by persons or organizations with power. An interesting point was brought up regarding the use of draconian laws against journalists to stifle any opinion-often the NIA is known to pick up journalists in Kashmir and keep them in judicial custody for long time periods.

The use of sedition also provides an apt example. Murthy also talked of wage boards which encouraged press freedom and independence by setting the salary, with no employer pressure, which have eroded gradually. Women in the profession also face a number of hurdles, often in the form of lack of a maternity leave which force them to quit the job at times. The matter of centralization of news was also talked of as a number of editors were asked to leave due to certain tilt in their opinion and since journalist job losses are not covered anywhere, self preservation in the form of self censorship has come to the fore. In the current climate, journalism has faced different kinds of problems and issues as the breakout of the Me Too Movement suggests coupling sexual harassment along with office hierarchy in a workplace setup where juniors are often told what they should do such as the controversy surrounding MJ Akbar. Often, this hierarchy pushes journalists to do freelancing. With regard to toxic male and misogynist culture in workplaces, it is prevalent everywhere be it Guwahati or Kerala.

Following this, journalist Gaurav Das said that there were not many women journalists in the state and specifically in hard news. Advocate Upashana Duarah brought up the issue of faulty collection of evidence by constables citing the Talwar Case which hampers the investigation process. Adding on to that, she said that sensitization, training and better pay for constables might be a beneficial solution. On this, journalist Laxmi Murthy mentioned that training could indeed be pursued. Advocate Sauradeep Dey of HRLN posed the question of sensitizing the police in the midst of lack of cooperation from them.

Another point raised by Debasmita Ghosh was that the police was often reluctant to hear complaints from people belonging to the lower strata of society but would entirely be different toward a well to do person who may take up complaints on their behalf. The discussion then moved toward influence of social media and various experiences were brought up. Advocate Dey told of how a teacher at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati was trolled for publishing poems online.

Advocate Saif Rasul Khan, spoke about his own experience of being trolled for a blog he wrote. Journalist Gaurav Das talked about how journalists in the state tread on safe waters and tend to go with tide. He mentioned how in a place like Majuli, post BJP coming into power saw posters of Lord Ram pasted onto trees signifying the current government’s priorities whereby huge amounts are spent on flags and statues rather than education and the like. He raised another interesting issue that the indigenous Muslims of the state face a dilemma when it comes to the NRC issue, stating that the issue isn’t just a two way issues and that various other communities such as Christians and Garos have come from Bangladesh due to the religious persecution they have faced.

Advocate Upashna Duarah then raised the question of the scope of journalism with respect to Article 19 i.e. the demarcation for a journalist and where the defamation law and journalist ethics come in. The discussion then led to the state of today’s television media motivated by the need to gain TRP with a focus on anchor Arnab Goswami of Republic TV. A criticism of Mr. Goswami’s journalism followed and how journalism had been turned by various television anchors for the worse merely serving the purpose of gaining TRP.

Journalist Laxmi Murthy then proceeded to deciding a course of action

1. She offered to provide data and raised the question of what could be done. Research could be conducted into legal procedures against acts of violence that have taken place and their outcomes.

2. Building up of a network between journalists and advocates with the intention of holding another meeting in the early part of the next year. The idea of freedom of expression would be explored broadly so as to include writers, filmmakers, activists. Further, the meeting would also include the police and moreover, looking at cases related to freedom of expression.

3. The need for training workshops at the city level was also raised. Gaurav Das put forth the idea of including the the families of the victim and to know their perspectives.

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