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This article is written by Nehal Kharyal, from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies (VIPS). This is an exhaustive article that describes instances where journalists have to face online harassment and the laws protecting journalists and freedom of the press.


Did you know that according to a global study which was conducted by the International Federation of Journalists in which 400 women journalists in 50 countries were surveyed and it showed shocking results in which around 44% of them had experienced online abuse. In the study, it was found that almost two-thirds of women had experienced some form of intimidation, threats, or abuse in relation to their work. How one can forget the case of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was known for speaking out boldly against the establishment. She was assassinated in her house in Bengaluru around two years ago after receiving online death threats.

However, after recognizing the concern in 2017, the United Nations of General Assembly had issued a resolution regarding the safety of the journalists and the issue of impunity addressing violence, intimidation, and harassment of journalists especially for female journalists both online and offline. Under this United Nations, the General Assembly had also issued orders to the states to create and maintain in law and practice a safe and enabling environment for the journalist so that they can perform their work independently and without undue interference. Concerned about the situation, the International Federation of Journalists in 2017 initiated the Byteback Campaign to stop cyber-bullying and online harassment of women journalists.

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Historical overview

In 2017, the Council of Europe published a survey regarding the harassment against the journalists. This survey was conducted in its 47 member countries. In this 940 journalist polled, out of which 40% said that they had been subjected to different forms of harassment which had affected their personal life. In this 53% of cases were of cyberharassment. Mexico is the deadliest for the journalists. In 2017, eleven journalists were killed in Mexico. It is a country where online discrimination campaigns using fake accounts and boat programs that automatically generates posts have reached an unprecedented level. In Mexico, virtual applause from bots and fake posts threaten the integrity of the public debate by drowning journalistic content and creating a content asymmetry. It has now become very much difficult for the Mexicans to distinguish journalistic content from promotional content where around 18% of Twitter content is created by bots. According to one of the reports of International Women’s Media Foundation in 2013, it was mentioned that two-third of the women who polled in an international survey said that they had been the victim of harassment and some of the journalists who spoke to the RSF (Reporters Without Borders) also said that they have decided to decrease their visibility online and to censor themselves after being the target of online harassment. 

Instances where journalists became a victim of online harassment in India

As every coin has two sides similarly social media has its both positive as well as negative effects. On one side, it gives a space to express yourself but on the other side, it also creates space for people to respond violently to your thoughts. Women in India have seen both sides of this sword. Online harassment against women has become common as street harassment in the offline world. It has been seen a number of times where Misogynist and Right-wing groups often respond to the online content of women with contemptuous threats and sexist verbal abuse. There are number cases where journalists have become the victim of online harassment and some of them are-

  • Sagarika Gosh, who is an Indian journalist, news anchor, columnist, and author. In 2012, she received rape threats by a Twitter user who discovered and published her’s daughter name and school. Gosh mentioned that tweets came from right-wing nationalists targeting liberal and secular women. Soon after this, she stopped sharing her personal views on twitter.
  • In 2015, Rega Jha, who was Buzzfeed’s India editor received rape threats after she praised Pakistani players on Twitter during the India-Pakistan cricket match. She received many abusive comments from a large number of Indian men. India-Pakistan has had tense relations since the partition of India in 1947.
  • Barkha Dutt who is an Indian television journalist, author, and owner of a Youtube channel called Mojo. She was a part of the NDTV team for around 21 years. In 2015 she became a victim of online harassment after she described being sexually abused as a child in her book named “This Unquiet Land”.
  • V.P Rajeena, working with Media One Group, in 2015 she published a personal account of child sexual abuse at a Sunni religious school in the southern city on Facebook. It leads to attracted abuse from members of the Muslim community and many of them also reported her account for violating community guidelines. This leads to her being temporarily blocked from her account.

Current challenges to media freedom in India

In the Press Freedom Index report of Reporters without Borders, India was ranked 140th out of 180 countries in 2014. The main challenge to press freedom in India arises from the restrictions which are imposed by the owners of the newspaper, government, political parties, etc. They may attempt to compel newspapers to compromise their independence. According to one of the reports in 2011-2012 showed that government owns 0.71% share of the newspaper in the country, the individual owns 80.67%, firms or partners owns 1.13%, Joint Stock companies own 12.85%, societies own 2.5%, trusts own 1.95% and others own 0.4% of the newspaper. There are many cases where it has been seen that journalists not only have to bear the threats and harassment from the authorities but also from terrorists and criminal gangs. These days independent reporting of the journalists leads to attacks on journalists, their arrests, fine, kidnapping, and even murder. 

  • Handful ownership of media: According to the reports of the DataLEADS and Reporters Without Borders, India is considered to be one of the largest media markets in the world for the reason being only a few people have control over the ownership of media as mentioned above. The transparency in the inner structure of the media is decreasing day by day which is also putting the credibility of the media at stake. These days we see many Indian media houses that are owned and controlled by politically affiliated people.
  • Attacks on Journalists: As mentioned above India ranks 140 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index. These days besides Mexico, India is also considered to be one of the deadliest countries for journalists. The Indian Constitution does not grant any specific leverage for journalists to protect their work. Though Article 19 of the Constitution of India grants freedom of speech to all the citizens of India with reasonable restrictions but many times the state used these restrictions with other laws which include The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 etc to suppress the voice of journalists.
  • Lack of diversity in reportage: There are 800 channels and 36,000 weekly magazine publications and hundreds of web portals in India. But the main problem is that there is a lack of diversity on news coverage like many remote places in South India hardly get required coverage in national media.
  • Advertisements and Press Freedom- There are many advertisements that are released by governments and private companies. These advertisements constitute an important source of income for the newspaper. So the newspaper agencies are bound to listen to them as a denial of advertisements severely affects their earnings, particularly those in a small category.

Situation of journalists in India

Krishna Prasad is an Indian journalist. He served as an Editor-in-Chief of news magazine Outlook between 2012-2016. In one of his interviews which he gave to Dharwad District Union of Working Journalists (DDUWJ) on the occasion of “Press Day,” he mentioned that Indian journalism is going through its worst phase in history, according to him much this is worse than the situation during the Emergency in the country. He further added that while the Emergency declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had a beginning and an end but the current situation of “undeclared emergency” has neither a date of its start nor a date for its end, which is a major matter of concern.

COVID-19 and shrinking press freedom in India

  • On 8th April 2020 Ashwani Saini, who works as a freelancer for the Hindi daily newspaper “Dainik Jagran” filed a video report for the page named “Mandi Live”. In this Saini highlighted the failure of the district administration supplying rations to migrants workers in the district’s Sundernagar sub-division. Soon after this Sundernagar sub-division magistrate filed an FIR against the Saini accusing him of the spreading of ‘Fake News’. Besides this, on 13th April 2020 Saini was again booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code for showing the bricks kilns that were operating in the sub-division in the clear violation of lockdown rules. Along with this, the car which was used by him for reporting purposes was also seized and a total of five FIR was registered against him.
  • Another reporter named Om Sharma of Divya Himachal, against whom three FIR’s were filed during the lockdown as he went live on Facebook from the industrial town of Baddi, which focused on the hungry migrant labourers protesting by the roadside. This report of Om Sharma was termed as “sensational/fake news” in the FIR.

Laws protecting journalists and freedom of the press

To preserve the democratic way of life people must be given the freedom to express their feelings and to make their views known to the people at large. A press that is considered to be one of the powerful mediums of communication must be free to play its role in building a strong society. Freedom of the press is nowhere defined in the Constitution of India but what is mentioned is only freedom of speech and expression which is defined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The chairman of the Drafting Committee Dr. BR Ambedkar, made clear that there is no need to mention the freedom of press separately because freedom of the press and an individual or a citizen were the same as their right to expression was concerned. The framers of The Constitution of India considered freedom of the press as an essential part of the freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. 

Many surveys have found that none of the countries has adopted any provision related to the protection of journalists who become victims of online harassment. However, the individual countries have adopted specific legislation particularly targeting online harassment and generally prohibiting harassment by any means including online. Specific offences involving online harassment applicable to journalists and non-journalists are still found in many countries and some of them are-

  • Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act which was enacted in 2015 in Canada, to prohibit the cyberbullying and non-consensual distribution of intimate images etc.
  • In Finland, there are many laws which contain a number of crimes specific to online behaviour, such as violating a person’s online privacy and interference with the peaceful enjoyment of communication etc.

Indian case laws related to freedom of the press

  • Express Newspaper vs. Union of IndiaIn this case, the validity of the Working Journalist Act, 1955 was challenged. However, the court held the act as valid. It stated that the press was not immune from laws of general application or laws of Industrial relations. The reason behind passing the act was to improve the service condition of women in the newspaper industry and therefore, impose reasonable restrictions on article 19(1)(a).
  • Romesh Thapper vs. State of Madras–  In this case, a law banning entry and circulation of journals in the state was held invalid. The court held that there is no doubt that the freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas and that freedom is ensured by freedom of circulation but it was contended that a law which authorized restriction on the ground of ‘public safety or the maintenance of public order’ falls outside the scope of the authorized restriction under clause(2) and therefore void and unconstitutional.
  • R.Rajagopal vs. State of Tamil NaduIn this case, the Supreme Court held that the government does not have any power to impose any law which restrains publication of defamatory material against its officials. However, they could take action for the damages after the publication of such material but only if they prove that the publication was based on false documents.


As it is mentioned earlier that the freedom of the press is nowhere mentioned in the Indian Constitution. However, the right related to freedom of speech and expression is provided in Article 19 of the Constitution. It is believed that freedom of speech and expression also constitute freedom of the press. The status of the press is the same as the ordinary citizen. The press cannot claim immunity from taxation and press employees are subjected to the same laws which regulate industrial employment.


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