Journalism and the frontlines of a smokeless war

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 28, 2023

Photo by Leohoho on Unsplash

In India, the editor of a news website remains in police custody after his arrest under a terrorism prevention law in a case that has seen police interrogate dozens of other journalists.

In Russia, a second US journalist after the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich was detained by the authorities on October 18(Opens in new window, as the country widened its crackdown independent journalism after its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this year, Tunisia used security and counterterrorism legislation as well as a presidential decree on cybercrimes, to arrest and convict six journalists for spreading “false news, information or rumours”.

In Guatemala, a newspaper considered a beacon of the independent press  published its last edition in May, citing intolerable government pressure and “severe adverse conditions”.

In Algeria, the editor of one of the country’s last remaining independent media outlets was sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of receiving “foreign financing of his business”.

A common thread runs darkly through these cases. The journalists and their outlets laid bare inconvenient truths, material unpalatable to the authorities because it diverged from the official messaging.

It’s not that everyone on the list above was engaged in explosive investigative journalism, unveiling deep corruption and rot at the heart of state. In fact, Alsu Kurmasheva the dual Russian-US citizen detained in Russia’s Tatarstan republic, is an editor for US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty ’s (RFE/RL) Tatar-Bashkir language service, hardly a bastion of bold objectivity. And the Indian site NewsClick, whose founder and editor Prabir Purkayastha was arrested and nearly 50 of whose journalists’ homes raided by police, was not a household name even in India, let alone overseas.

But RFE/RL’s language service offers a perspective that doesn’t toe the Kremlin’s official line. NewsClick was known to be broadly progressive and crucially, it adopted a questioning stance on many of the Hindu nationalist BJP government’s more controversial actions. These include citizenship laws that disadvantaged Muslims by including a religious test for immigrants; the sudden decision four years ago to revoke the disputed Kashmir region’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, and coming down hard on protests by students and farmers.

Unsurprising then that Kurmasheva, the RFE editor, is alleged to “conduct information campaigns discrediting Russia” and Purkayastha of NewsClick now stands accused of receiving “foreign funds…to create disaffection (and as part of a) larger conspiracy”. RFE says its editor merely “reported on initiatives to protect and preserve the Tatar language and culture from Russian authorities”. NewsClick denies it has any funding links with China, even as at least  one prominent former Indian newspaper editor decried “the lowest point for media freedom” in the country in nearly 50 years and a former Indian diplomat commented that the prolonged investigation of journalists would mean “the process … becomes the punishment”. Meanwhile, Amnesty International India pointedly noted that “journalism is not a crime”.

Except that journalism is becoming not just a crime but a casualty on the frontlines of a smokeless war.

NewsClick is alleged to be part of a worldwide propaganda battle waged by the Chinese government and its media machine. In August, The New York Times reported on how, multiple arms of the Chinese state adhere, octopus-like, to disparate entities across the world. These include, it said, think tanks and anti-war groups on the east coast of the United States, political movements in South Africa and news organisations in India and Brazil.

That China has cultivated foreign influencers is undeniable. But the geopolitical West often conveniently ignores the extent to which some of its own strategic partners engage in the smokeless war.

Just days ago, came the stunning news that Arundhati Roy, one of India’s best-known writers, could be prosecuted for a 2010 speech in which she allegedly called for Kashmir to secede.  India’s position on the World Press Freedom Index has anyway slipped to 161 of 180 countries. And as Israel relentlessly bombs the civilians of Gaza, its communications minister has proposed emergency regulations that would allow the arrest of journalists who publish content deemed to “harm national morale”.

Indeed, the frontlines of the smokeless war on independent journalism cross ideological and geographical boundaries.

Dr Rashmee Roshan Lall presented ‘The World Today’, BBC World Service’s flagship news and current affairs programme, was editor of The Sunday Times of India and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Economist and Foreign Policy among others. Her novel Pomegranate Peace (Hachette) was based on a year spent in Afghanistan. She currently writes a popular newsletter This Week, Those Books, which connects international news to the world of books