2021: IFF takes a step towards defending journalism in India
Internet use in India must be protected by the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution of India. With this as its guiding principle, the Internet Freedom Foundation has been engaged in strategic litigation in order to foster incremental and long term change and impact. In 2021, IFF continued its work on issues affecting the freedoms of citizens in the digital space while responding to new challenges such as the Pegasus Spyware, governmental regulation of digital space, copyright infringement suits and anti-competitive practices of big tech. A snapshot of our work that defends your rights is provided here.
At the intersection of free speech and the right to access information lies press freedom. Motivated by the desire to help the increasing number of journalists approaching IFF seeking legal aid and assistance in order to defend their freedom of speech, IFF established the Digital Patrakar Defence Clinic in September, 2021 with the aim and objective to provide pro bono legal aid and assistance to journalists in need.
The Clinics were conducted on a weekly basis where journalists discussed their legal issues with lawyers Abhinav Sekhri and Sanjana Srikumar via a Zoom meeting, and sought advice and assistance; issues varied from defamation to labour issues to instances of personal harassment and more.
We have already provided direct legal representation to journalists in two cases, the details of which are below:
- The Petitioners in this case are famous journalists and the case deals with the use of the Israeli malware ‘Pegasus’ on their mobile phones to carry out detailed surveillance activities. We filed a writ petition on behalf of the Petitioners before the Supreme Court in order to prompt the Central Government to conduct an investigation regarding the use of Pegasus ('attribution' continues to be a challenge, as it is not yet legally 'known' who was behind the use of Pegasus against Indian journalists), and for the Supreme Court to declare the use of Pegasus illegal. An interim order dated October 27, 2021 was passed in the matter by the Supreme Court appointing a committee of experts to investigate the alleged surveillance of the journalists.
- The Journalist, in this case, was issued a notice under Section 5(2) of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 ('Notice') to furnish certain information in relation to his writ petition challenging the use of Pegasus spyware on their phone. Any person required to furnish information under the said provision is legally bound to do so, and attracts penal provisions under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 when information is not provided or false information is provided. Further, the Commission has demanded that the concerned journalist hand over his phone for forensic analysis to the Commission. Since the notice was received by the journalist without any proactive involvement on their part, and also carries the threat of potential penal action, we are assisting them to ensure that the investigation is conducted fairly and that they are not subjected to further harassment or endangerment, as a result of their participation in such investigation.
We have also provided legal advice to 15 journalists with various issues - an anonymised summary of a few cases highlighting the issues faced by journalists is mentioned below:
- A journalist who runs a local newspaper in Central India was facing criminal and civil defamation cases before a District Court in North India in relation to an article written by them about the favouring of a private contractor by a senior Indian Administrative Service officer. Their issues were: (i) regarding the matters not coming up for hearing, and (ii) transfer of the case to their hometown in Central India. Mr Sekhri answered their questions and informed them that (i) there are delays in listing of matters at the concerned district court due to COVID, and (ii) a transfer petition can be filed before the Supreme Court seeking the transfer of the cases from the concerned district court to a court in their hometown.
- A journalist was pursuing a story against an entity that had promised to provide low-interest loans to villagers, but was found to have doubled the rates after the loan agreements were signed. The journalist sought pre-publication guidance for writing on this issue. Mr Sekhri advised him that he be wary of the following: (i) the language used, (ii) the entity’s right of response, and (iii) use of sufficient caveats in his work.
- A journalist who was arrested for two separate cases allegedly running a daily newspaper and a hospital in an unauthorised and illegal manner in a district in Central India, reached out to us for assistance. His arrest was ostensibly a State response to his coverage of government ineptitude during the second wave of Covid-19. We conducted extensive review of documents, and provided legal advice. On appeal, bail was granted to them in all matters.
With the launch of a new project, also came various setting-up activities, which we undertook (and continue to undertake) to maximise the strength of our network, which will ensure that more and more journalists are able to avail the Clinic’s legal aid services. The activities included creating a website with the help of IFF volunteers, creating content in the form of blog posts, partnering with law firms, journalist’s organisations and other not-for-profit organisations, and conducting events and seminars.
We would like to thank Madhushree and Prashant Matta for designing our website, and Krishna Acondy and Kartik Choudhary for developing it. We would also like to thank our promotional, content and on-ground partners - FMP, DigiPub, Bharucha and Partners, and Dhwani Legal Trust.
What’s in store for the Clinic in 2022?
With the foundation of the Clinic in place, we will continue to offer legal aid services to as many journalists as possible. We will create practical guides and publish content that would help journalists understand the legal rights and remedies available to them. We will continue organising periodic events and workshops discussing contemporary legal issues faced by journalists.
We are approaching the next year with a positive outlook and understand that the new year will come with its challenges. We believe that our learnings in the short duration of our new project would keep us afloat and help us make 2022 a better year for journalism in India.
Apart from this, we look forward to your suggestions on what we can do better? Reach out to us by [filling in this form] and let us know what we should focus on in 2022, or let us know how we can make our existing work more effective.
Lastly, we are thankful to the volunteers and the partners who came on board to work on this project. And, as always, we are thankful to our members without whose support, belief and trust in our work, this initiative would not have been possible!