In India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, police arrested four journalists over a tweet and a story, underlining what news organizations and other critics see as an increasing threat to freedom of speech in India. While free speech is a constitutional right, reports from across the country show growing official intolerance for dissent and contrary opinions.

The UP police on June 8 arrested freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia; Ishika Singh, head of Noida-based news channel Nation Live; and Anuj Shukla, one of the editors of the channel. On June 10, police arrested Anshul Kaushik, another editor of the news channel. All four were booked for publishing “objectionable content” related to a controversial video of a woman who claimed she had sent a marriage proposal to the state’s chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht, who is also known as Yogi Adityanath.

While a local court denied bail to Singh and Shukla, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed Uttar Pradesh police to release Kanojia and called his arrest a ‘“glaring case of deprivation of liberty” and “excessive” action by the police. “We might not approve of the nature of his posts,” said Justice Indira Banerjee, who headed the two-judge bench., but we are concerned about his arrest. This is a nation that has a constitution. Liberty cannot be infringed like this.”

The Editor’s Guild of India condemned the arrests of media persons in the Bisht case, saying the intent was “to intimidate the press and stifle freedom of expression.” “Whatever the accuracy of the woman’s claims, to register a case of criminal defamation against the journalists for sharing it on the social media and airing it on a television channel is a brazen misuse of law,” the guild’s statement read.

Several other arrests of civilians have taken place for “defaming'” Chief Minister Bisht. However, that particular situation is only symptomatic of the rampant muzzling of freedom of expression across the country.

One recent example: Government Railway Police personnel on Tuesday beat up a journalist in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district. The journalist, who had gone to cover a train derailment incident, alleged that the police officers even urinated in his mouth

Not surprisingly, India ranked very low – 140th – in a comparison of press freedom among 180 countries this year.

War on free speech

The instances of arrests for sharing political views, jokes or memes online have started to create a sense of fear among citizens. A 16-year-old boy, a Muslim by faith, was detained by the UP police in August last year. On the day former prime minister and BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away, the teenager wrote on Facebook expressing his anger at Vajpayee, whom he alleged was involved in the infamous demolition of the Ayodhya mosque Babri Masjid.

His post went viral – especially among far-right, Hindu nationalist circles. As a result, he spent 39 days in custody. He said he was later shunned by all his non-Muslim friends. The boy, who previously had been vocal on social media, seems to have shut up after his exposure to state machinery. Both he and his family refrained from making any comments online after the journalists’ arrest took social media by storm.

Kerala is another state, besides UP, where the evidence of a crackdown on free speech  is piling up.

Recently data showed that police cases were filed against as many as 119 people for allegedly abusing Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on social media over the last three years. The data came from the government of the southern state itself. Opposition leaders compared Vijayan to UP chief minister Bisht.

The Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi, an autonomous body, was on Wednesday asked by the state government to review its decision to honor a cartoonist who had done a caricature of rape-accused bishop Franco Mulakkal. The government’s move was prompted by protests from a section of the Christian clergy.

Two persons were arrested in Karnataka on June 11 for allegedly posting a video abusing former prime minister H D Deve Gowda and his family on social media. They were arrested under sections 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.

Then there’s West Bengal. The Supreme Court in May granted bail to a Bharatiya Janata Party youth wing worker, Priyanka Sharma, who’d been slapped with a criminal defamation charge and arrested for posting an altered picture of chief minister Mamata Banerjee on social media. But in freeing her on bail the court asked the defendant to tender an unconditional written apology.

Misuse of law

India, like many other countries, places what many would consider reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression. But the recent string of arrests highlights not just a general disregard for free speech but also a specific intolerance towards anything that challenges or mocks the political establishment.

The journalists are charged with defamation under Section 500 and Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code and are accused as well of making statements conducive to public mischief, an offense under Section 505. Kanojia is additionally facing charges under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act (sharing obscene content in electronic form).

There are several laws, especially the ones on criminal defamation and obscenity, that have been repeatedly used in these cases following a disturbing pattern.

In Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court  in 2015 struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which put restrictions on online speech and provided power to arrest a person for sharing  “offensive” content online. The court said the law invaded the right to free speech and was vaguely worded and, thus, the police could misuse it. But even then, other provisions of the IT Act (against obscenity or morphed images) are being used to incarcerate people. Furthermore, the Supreme Court had to issue a notice to the Central Government in January this year for the continued use of the defunct Section 66A of the IT Act by the police.

Section 67 of the IT Act that says “whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or tends to deprave and corrupt persons shall be punished.” The law, under which a jail term of five years and fine of 500,000 rupees can be imposed, is reportedly the second most used in the It Act after Section 66. A report found that from 2008 to 2015, the number of cases filed under Section 67 grew steadily from 105 to 749.

Criminal defamation is also used indiscriminately against journalists by powerful politicians and examples are ample.

The Supreme Court’s order upheld a citizen’s fundamental right to liberty granted under Article 19 (freedom of speech) and Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Indian constitution and called those rights “sacrosanct and non-negotiable.”

Whether this will set a precedent to deter the police from wrongly arresting people or persecuting journalists remains to be seen.