One journalist was shot and wounded, another had his jaw broken, at least four others were injured and a dozen or more were subjected to extreme intimidation during clashes in the Indian capital, in which the hostility towards reporters was so violent that RSF appealed to the New Delhi police on 25 February to guarantee their safety.
“The passivity shown by the police during mob intimidation of journalists was bordering on complicity,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The targeted violence against reporters indicated a systematic determination to prevent them from covering a major event in India’s history. We hold home affairs minister Amit Shah responsible for the serious press freedom violations during these riots.”
The week of rioting, which left at least 42 dead and around 350 injured, began in mainly Muslim neighbourhoods after the leadership of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party issued a call on 24 February for a crackdown on protests against the newly adopted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which many regard as discriminatory against Muslims.
Many reporters found themselves caught in the ensuing, extremely violent clashes between CAA supporters and opponents. They included Akash Napa, a reporter for the JK 24x7 TV news channel, who was shot in the chest at midday on 25 February while covering mob violence in the district of Maujpur.
Naomi Barton, a reporter for The Wire news website, described to RSF the terror felt by journalists trying to cover the violence. “For the most part we were trying to not let on that we were reporters,” she said. “I was mostly shooting on my phone and not carrying a lot of equipment.”
Although circulating on a two-wheeler with a colleague from The Wire, Barton was repeatedly stopped by hostile mobs. “They took our phones and made us delete our footage, too many times to tell,” she said, adding that she soon began uploading material to The Wire’s WhatsApp group so that crucial evidence would not be lost.
The media victims included NDTV reporters Arvind Gunasekar, Saurabh Shukla and Mariyam Alavi and cameraman Sushil Rathee. All four had to be hospitalized on the afternoon of 25 February after being badly injured by pro-CAA demonstrators, some of whom surrounded Gunasekar, hitting him in the face, with the result that he lost three teeth. Shukla took a blow from a lathi, a type of long baton often used to deadly effect by riot police, when he tried to prevent one of the demonstrators from using it against Gunasekar.
CNN News 18 TV reporter Runjhun Sharma was also the target of extreme hostility. “I was surrounded by these men, who kept asking us for our religious credentials,” he said. “We had to fold our hands in front of them. We had to plead for several minutes to let us go.”
Other journalists also reported having to beg pro-CAA demonstrators to let them go by putting their hands together or by shouting “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory for the God Rama) in order to show that they were Hindus. In some cases, rioters even asked reporters to chant a traditional Hindu hymn called the Hanuman Chalisa.
Freelancer Ismat Ara described on the Firstpost website how she avoided being lynched by hiding the fact that she was a journalist and had a Muslim surname. “I was scared they would catch me for being a journalist, molest me for being a girl, lynch me for being a Muslim if they found out my identity,” she wrote.
Times of India photojournalist Anindya Chattopadhyay said he was accosted by Hindu nationalists armed with lathis when he tried to photograph a burning building at around midday on 24 February. “You are also a Hindu, so what is the harm?” one of them asked. When he tried to get away, they followed him and threatened to pull down his trousers to see if he was a Muslim. He too had to put his hands together to beg them to let him go.
“Your phone or your life”
After taking photos of a fire the same day in the district of West Karawal Nagar, Indian Express reporter Shivnarayan Rajpurohit was accosted by rioters, who told him: “You can’t report from here.” They took his notebook and threw it into the flames and then demanded his smartphone, saying: “What’s more precious to you: Your phone or life?” After being hit a few times, he handed over his phone. A man then took his sunglasses and crushed beneath his foot. Surrounded by around 50 threatening individuals, Rajpurohit finally managed to flee on his bicycle.
Three Hindustan Times reporters, Soumya Pillai, Anvit Srivastava and Fareeha Ifthikar, were attacked in their car in a nearby district. They tried to flee but were chased and caught by men on motorcycles, who made them prove that they were Hindus before letting them go.
Freelancer Shreya Chatterjee told The Print newspaper that she was covering the ransacked stores, burning buildings and stone-throwing in Maujpur on Twitter when she was accosted by pro-CAA activists. “This is the fight of Hindus,” they told her. “Support us, and don’t record all this. Otherwise you will be in trouble.”
Tanushree Pandey was reporting for India Today in the same district when she found herself surrounded by mob that told her not to take photos. “All this while 10 men were holding me tightly by my waist and shoulders,” she wrote on Twitter. “Have never felt so scared.”
Other reporters such as Scroll.in website’s Vijayna Lalwani, Times Now’s Parvina Purkayashta and Republic TV’s Shantasree Sarkar have confirmed the sexual dimension of the harassment to which women journalists were more specifically subjected during these days of terror.
India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.