Human Rights Watch calls on India to stop harassment of critics

Sep 17, 2021 | Communication Blockade

NEW YORK, Sep 17 (APP): Human Rights Watch (HRW), a prominent international watchdog body, Friday accused the Indian authorities of using politically motivated allegations of tax evasion and financial irregularities to “silence human rights activists, journalists, and other critics of the government”, and called for an end to their harassment.

In a statement, the New York-based rights group said that in the current month, Indian government financial officials have carried out raids in Srinagar, New Delhi, and Mumbai on journalists’ homes, news offices, an actor’s premises, as well as the home and office of a human rights activist.

The raids are part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led national government’s escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly since coming to power in 2014, HRW said.

The authorities, it added, have brought politically motivated criminal cases, including under broadly worded terrorism and sedition laws, against activists, journalists, academics, students, and others. They have also used foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial misconduct to target outspoken groups.

“The Indian government’s raids appear intended to harass and intimidate critics, and reflect a broader pattern of trying to silence all criticism,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said. “These abuses weaken India’s core democratic institutions and break down fundamental freedoms.”

HRW expressed concern about a number of cases, including tax raids on actor Sonu Sood, human rights activist Harsh Mander and digital media outlets Newslaundry and Newsclick. Mander was in Germany on a fellowship at the time of the raid.

It referred to raids on four journalists in Jammu and Kashmir – Hilal Mir, Showkat Motta, Mohammad Shah Abbass and Azhar Qadri, confiscating their phones and laptops.

Also spotlighted was the first information report filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police against journalist Rana Ayyub, an outspoken critic of the BJP government, for alleged money laundering, cheating, dishonest misappropriation of property, and criminal breach of trust. The complaint, brought by a group called the “Hindu IT cell,” accused her of committing these crimes during fundraising campaigns for flood victims and people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Journalism organizations, such as the Editors Guild and Press Club of India, it noted, have repeatedly called for an end to harassment of independent media, saying that it is a blatant attack on press freedom.

In June, HRW pointed out that the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote to the Indian government expressing concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The letter cited the cases of Fahad Shah, Auqib Javeed, Sajar Gul, and Qazi Shibli, and also raised concerns over the closure of the outspoken newspaper Kashmir Times in October 2020. It noted that these violations “may be part of a broader pattern of silencing of independent reporting in Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn may ultimately deter other journalists and civil society more broadly from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights in the region.”

The UN high commissioner for human rights and various UN human rights experts have repeatedly raised concerns in the last few years over shrinking space for civil society groups, and increased harassment and prosecution of human rights defenders and other critics. They have called on the government to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their basic human rights, and to protect the country’s civil society groups.

Accusing India of stifling fundamental freedoms, Ms. Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, called on the Indian government to “change course and uphold the basic rights of its people.”