Ending impunity for crimes against journalists is one of the most pressing issues to guarantee freedom of expression and access to information for all citizens. In light of November 2 celebrated as the International Day of Ending Impunity Of Crime Against Journalists, here is a conversation I had with Jagisha Arora.
Apart from being a journalist herself, Jagisha also happens to be the wife of Prashant Kanojia, a political leader, a Dalit rights activist and a former journalist. He has been arrested twice in the past by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government on various charges such as inciting hatred, forgery etc.
These allegations were flimsy at best. Most of them were based on evidence with no substance, leading to Kanojia’s bail as well.
Jagisha Arora (JA): The first time we talked to each other was in the comments section of a Facebook post in 2018. And that’s how we got talking. Slowly but surely, we found each other’s conversation rather enthralling and we decided to go out on a date. As we progressed past the first date, we got closer.
One day, while the two of us were attending a protest, I uploaded a picture of the same on my social media handle that did not go well with my family.
My brother objected to the pictures I had uploaded and soon, it blew up into an effort to control my life. Since I refused to accept their encroachment on my personal freedom, they issued me a statement to leave the house within 15 minutes.
Subsequently, I called Prashant and moved in with him. As a result of this incident, I started receiving threatening calls and messages, sounding me out on the idea of causing bodily harm to Prashant.
This took a toll on my mental health; inevitably, I decided to get police protection but upon reaching the police station, I realised that my family had already filed an FIR against me. Hence, I ended up giving a written statement of my consent towards staying with Prashant. We got married a few days later.
JS: The way the two of you worked so hard to build what you have left such an impression, although it also shows the fault lines of our civil society. Why don’t you tell us something that inspires you the most in the relationship? Something about Prashant that keeps you going when you have to face such challenging situations?
JA: One of the things that have always connected me to Prashant is his support towards me; and his care and concern towards mental health issues. His unconditional and unwavering attitude has always helped me. When my family was absent, he was there.
Apart from this quality of his, he always stands up for the truth and what he believes in, for he is fearless when it comes to fighting for the rights of marginalised people. The trust and bond between us are more than that of a husband and wife. The understanding of two best friends has always been the strength of our relationship.
पता है ये तस्वीर मुझे सबसे ज्यादा प्रिय है. इसमें तुम्हारा गुस्सा दिख रहा है. इस सिस्टम के खिलाफ. ये आईआईएमसी में फीस आंदोलन के दिनों की तस्वीर है. तुम कैसे मजबूती से बात रख रहे थे कि शिक्षा मुफ्त होनी चाहिए. यही बात मुझे तुम्हारे अंदर पहली मुलाकात में भी दिखी थी. pic.twitter.com/vg6r1yFHmu
— Jagisha Arora (@jagishaarora) October 4, 2020
JS: That’s so beautiful. What do you think was the intention behind Prashant’s repeated arrests? He has been jailed twice for just tweeting.
JA: It was a purely politically-motivated case. It had absolutely nothing to do with law and order. You see, Prashant had covered a story for The Wire when he was working with them. It was on how the UP state police had arrested a few minor kids under the pretext of calling them adults, during the Bharat Bandh on April 2.
He had also covered a few other stories implicating the policies of the sitting UP government. This was one of the biggest political motivators to arrest him and silence his pen. And indeed, the fact that he hails from the Dalit community and has been raising his voice against the discriminatory laws of the government makes it clear that there was no love lost between him and the higher-ups.
Not only him, but many others from the Dalit community in the media are increasingly harassed because of their caste. Arresting and subjecting someone to shock and third-degree torture (when he was arrested for the second time) based on a mere tweet — obviously, this has to be viewed from a political standpoint.
JS: Many activists have talked about how turning the process into a punishment is almost always the motivator behind these attempts at intimidation. More often than not, the cases turn out to be insubstantial. What would you like to say about this and in your opinion, how does it affect the family members of the implicated?
JA: The punishment itself is twofold and not only in the case of Prashant but for all other political prisoners, too. In addition to the struggles of the jailed individuals, the struggles of their family members should also be brought to the limelight.
After all, it’s the family and near and dear ones who are the main target of such actions. It is them who have to run from pillar to post through the neverending annals of our judiciary, all the while facing the questioning glances and side-eyes of the society.
Be it Umar Khalid’s mother or Khalid Saifi’s wife, it’s also them who are on trial. The mental health of not only the accused but that of their loved ones is terribly jeopardised, too. The sufferings of a wife whose husband has been arrested, of a mother whose son is in jail — all these are things that are almost indescribable.
I remember being wrecked with anxiety attacks and being on medication while fighting to prove Prashant’s innocence, even though the cases had no wind in their sails. Depression and the feeling of being trapped inside my own head were the common themes of my day, but you cannot stop.
You have to fight and carry on! It turns into a vicious cycle of forcing oneself to fight because you don’t have any other option, all the while facing mental health issues that impede your very thought process.
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JS: You are a journalist who is aware of the media scene in our country. Journalists including Gautam Navlakha, Siddique Kappan and Gauri Lankesh were jailed or killed. How do you think such incidents affect journalists? I am mainly referring to the small journalists with little to no political security.
JA: Today, the mainstream media is nothing but a stooge of the government. As for freelance journalists, it’s important to understand that they are the backbone of the Indian media. They do the toughest of jobs but are the least talked about.
What this causes is a lack of proper reporting. A few days ago, four Kashmiri students were thrashed in Punjab after India lost a cricket match to Pakistan. The mainstream news media barely covered this incident. What we are seeing in Tripura and in various other parts of our country where hate crimes and violence are not being covered in the media as they should be is a consequence of this environment of fear.
When Danish Siddique (a photojournalist with Reuters) was killed, no public comment was made by the government. This regime has created an atmosphere of fear, which causes independent journalists to feel scared of reporting ground realities. Journalists are scared for their lives and for being incarcerated for speaking the truth.
A few months ago, Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was jailed for merely saying that cow dung does not provide oxygen or heal people from coronavirus. What this has led to is a collapse of the entire media structure and a fear of reporting the truth.
JS: Is the repression at the hands of the government limited to a certain political ideology or does it cut across party lines?
JA: Arrests and repression of journalists have been a common theme across all governments, no doubt about it. But what is new is the effort behind the normalisation of hate. And hate has indeed been normalised.
Attacks on journalists for merely saying a few words against the establishment are unprecedented. We have reached a point where murder and arrests are the unfortunate reality of even small-time fact reporting, let alone investigative journalism.
This is almost an undeclared Emergency. The regime is scared of the truth and cannot handle its reality.
JS: When it comes to press freedom, India currently ranks at 142 out of 180 countries in the world. What do you have to say about this?
JA: Journalism in India has become a joke today. For example, when a Dalit man was hurt, hit and harassed by a Thakur man or a man from any other Savarna caste, you cannot use a “both sides” argument, as the Indian media usually does now.
You have to stand with the oppressed. You have to fight for the oppressed. Journalism is always for the oppressed, the subaltern. Journalism is the voice of the voiceless. It’s always for the powerless against the powerful.
And, no wonder we are at the 142nd position! Just look around and you will see that not many dare to report the truth of our societies. As journalists and Indians, we ought to learn from the wonderful people who risked their lives to bring truth to power, such as journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
JS: We don’t have a law in place that protects journalists yet. This is a rather important fact now as this interview is taking place in the light of the International Day to End Impunity of Crimes Against Journalists. Is there something you would like to add?
JA: When it comes to cold hard facts, we have no law or constitutional protections for the safety of the people engaged in one of the most dangerous professions: journalism. This needs to change by bringing about a law rooted in reality.
I only want to say that my journalism teaches me to always stand with the subaltern and to give voice to those who have been silenced. It is not about political pandering or what our supreme leader ate today. I want a law to protect us so that we can continue doing our duty towards democratic institutions and regular citizens by questioning the government.
JS: What would you like to say about citizens and their reading choices? I feel like it’s the readers who have a major say in what gets read and what is being sold.
JA: This is not entirely true. It is shrugging off responsibility. The readers will read fact-based investigations, too. It’s the media supermarket that sells them hate. If they begin spreading truth and love, they will see that it’s not that the readers are fools but rather the fact that they are being served hatred from all directions.
JS: Last month, the Supreme Court made certain comments on how the sedition law is anachronistic and should be scrapped. What are your views on this?
JA: I maintain that sedition law must be scrapped immediately. We, as a free nation, do not need such Victorian laws to govern us. Also, the law has almost always been used against people hailing from marginalised communities and individuals who dare to raise their voices against the unjust policies of the government. This was seen with those arrested during the anti-CAA and NRC protests.
JS: What would you like to say to our readers as an ending note? Also, can you quote your husband on his views in light of the injustice he was forced to endure?
JA: To the readers, I just have one request: read the Constitution. Be aware of the reality of our country and understand the values of secularism and social justice — which guided our freedom struggle. Read and understand what Bhagat Singh and several others died to protect.
As Prashant has always said, journalism is not for the rich and those living in palaces, it is for the poor, the women and for truth.
I have always learnt from him that as they say: jaise darr ke aage jeet hai, theek ussi tarah, sach ke aage journalism hai (Just like conquering your fears leads to victory, in the same manner, truth leads to journalism)!