Freedom of expression in India continues to deteriorate under the rule of the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In recent months, various forms of legal harassment have been used against independent media in a crackdown on peaceful dissent and reporting deemed critical of the Indian government. On 10 October, the lieutenant governor of Delhi approved the prosecution of writer and activist Arundhati Roy and one other individual on multiple charges relating to a speech Roy gave thirteen years ago.
A formal complaint, called a First Information Report (FIR), was initially registered against Roy and three others on 27 November 2010. The FIR related to Roy’s participation at a conference on Kashmir on 21 October 2010. It had been organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners and took place at a time of heightened unrest in the disputed territory. Mass protests broke out in response to the Indian army’s killing of three Kashmiri civilians, whom it falsely stated were terrorists. Roy gave a speech reflecting on the need for justice in Kashmir and criticising the Indian government’s administration of the territory. Over the past thirteen years, no further action has been taken by the authorities against Roy and the three other individuals (two of whom have since died).
Roy and her co-defendant are facing several charges under the Indian Penal Code, including dissemination of false information, giving a provocative speech and promoting enmity between groups. The 2010 FIR accused them of sedition. However, the authorities are yet to pursue this charge, while the validity of the sedition law is being reviewed by India’s Supreme Court.
It is surely no coincidence that this sudden decision to pursue charges against Roy occurred just days after she participated in a peaceful demonstration outside the Press Club of India in New Delhi highlighting the raids on journalists and staff of the independent media outlet NewsClick, which has been critical of the Indian government. On 3 October 2023, the Delhi Police raided thirty separate locations, targeting journalists and writers who have worked for NewsClick. Forty-six contributors were reportedly questioned by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, a unit specialising in counterterrorism and matters concerning organised crime. Their electronic devices were seized and many were taken into custody for questioning.
This is part of a wider investigation into the news organisation, thought to be linked to alleged funding it received from an individual purportedly connected with the Chinese Communist Party. NewsClick rejects all the allegations against it, noting that it has not published ‘any news or information at the behest of any Chinese entity or authority, directly or indirectly’, and that it ‘does not propagate Chinese propaganda on its website’. Furthermore, NewsClick asserts that due process was not followed during the raids, which includes the provision of hash values for seized digital devices, a necessary measure to guard against evidence tampering, which has occurred in previous cases involving critics of the government.
Among the dozens of figures who endured harassment were the journalist Aunindyo Chakravarty, the writers Githa Hariharan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and the historian Sohail Hashmi. The Delhi Police also searched the home of the writer and activist Teesta Setalvad. NewsClick’s founder and editor-in-chief, Prabir Purkayastha, and its head of human resources were formally arrested under India’s draconian anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is routinely used to target those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression.
‘At a time when democracy is in decline in countries around the world, this attack on free press, a pillar of any democracy, is deeply troubling,’ said Ma Thida, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. The writers’ organisation has called on the Indian authorities to end its crackdown on peaceful dissent and critical opinions and to immediately cease the legal proceedings against Arundhati Roy.
Updates: On 12 October, Rome’s criminal court found Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano (LR, Dec 2008; May 2019; March 2023) guilty of defaming Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and ordered him to pay a fine. In a separate case, Saviano faces up to three years in prison on charges of defaming Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, over a speech in which he described him as ‘ministro della mala vita’ (‘minister of the underworld’), a phrase borrowed from the early 20th-century anti-Fascist Gaetano Salvemini.
On 6 October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize to Iranian writer and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi (LR, June 2012; March 2016; Sept 2020) for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and tireless struggle for human rights. Mohammadi remains in prison. In August, she received an additional one-year sentence, increasing her total sentence to ten years, nine months’ imprisonment. She also faces 154 lashes.