Kamal Shukla, the editor of the Bhumkal Samachar newspaper in the east-central state of Chhattisgarh, has dedicated his career as journalist to defending press freedom, human rights and the Adivasi ethnic minority, and has often been the target of libel suits in connection with his work.
But, when he clicked the share button on a cartoon he saw on Facebook on 19 April, he clearly did not expect to be charged ten days later under India’s sedition law – article 124 (A) of the penal code – under which “whoever by words, either spoken or written or by signs, or by visible representation (...) excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government (...) shall be punished with imprisonment for life.”
The cartoon referred to the Indian supreme court’s refusal to order an independent investigation into the suspicious death in 2014 of a judge who had been hearing a trial involving the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s president, Amit Shah, who is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-hand man.
Shukla thought that by sharing the cartoon he was expressing concern about judicial independence being undermined by governmental influence, but the authorities saw it as an “anti-national” action.
“This is a flagrant violation of press freedom and an intolerable use of the judicial system to gag journalists who dare to denounce judicial and governmental failings,” RSF said. “We call on the Indian authorities to amend the completely obsolete sedition law, so that it cannot be used to silence the media, and to immediately drop these proceeding against Kamal Shukla, who has acted within his rights as a journalist.”
The Indian government sees the colonial-era sedition law as a handy weapon for use against outspoken media. It was used to prosecute several journalists, including two from Chhattisgarh, in 2011. Sedition charges were brought against the well-known cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in September 2012 in connection with cartoons about government corruption, but were dropped a month later.
India has fallen two places in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 138th out of 180 countries.