Punjab’s media reeling in aftermath of Amritpal Singh’s arrest
Internet bans, social-media suspensions and police raids of journalists’ homes in Indian Punjab raise concerns over press freedom amid a crackdown on supporters of the Khalistan ideologue Amritpal Singh
On 20 March 2023, Sandeep Singh was typing on his phone, "The blocking of accounts of Punjabi journalists Kamaldeep Brar and Gagandeep is highly regrettable." Before the Punjab-based journalist could complete his tweet, his phone rang. "Your account has been withheld in India," the caller told Sandeep. In response to legal requests from the Indian government, the microblogging site Twitter blocked over 120 accounts belonging to journalists, authors and politicians from Punjab – including Sandeep. This came amid a major crackdown against the Khalistan ideologue Amritpal Singh Sandhu, who gained popularity during the farmers' protest movement that swept Punjab in 2020 and 2021.
On 18 March, the police launched a massive manhunt to arrest Amritpal. Earlier, Amritpal had taken over Waris Punjab De, a Sikh separatist outfit founded by the actor turned activist Deep Sidhu, who died in early 2022. He also underwent a baptism ceremony upon returning to India from Dubai, where he earlier lived and worked, which garnered him attention. During the manhunt, Punjab's 27 million residents were hit by a suspension of internet and SMS services. While the suspension was lifted in many districts after a few days, in areas such as Tarn Taran, Moga, Sangrur, Ferozepur and Ajnala division in Amritsar, and a few areas in Mohali, it continued till 24 March. Meanwhile, though Amritpal evaded arrest, several of his associates were picked up.
Amritpal was finally arrested on 23 April. During the manhunt, and even after he was caught, Punjab's media also faced a crackdown. Numerous journalists had their social media accounts suspended, as did many Sikh activists. Often, like with Sandeep, they had no connection to Amritpal or his ideology. Some journalists also had their homes raised by the police. The effects of this suppression continue to ripple through Punjab's media, raising doubts over the state of press freedom here and the Indian government's willingness to violate the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
On the ground
In 2020, during the farmers' protest, Punjab saw ground-level participation in the political affairs of the state. During this protest, Sandeep Singh was widely recognised for his coverage of events on the ground. Punjabi journalists including Sandeep became a source of authentic news for people from the Singhu border, a centre of the protest movement, amid widespread propaganda against the farmers by the mainstream Indian media.
The majority of his tweets were news updates from Punjab. "I did not post anything that was fake," he said. "If I have done that or incited violence at any point, the government must lodge a formal complaint against me." The recent Twitter suspension was not the first-time that restrictions have been imposed on his social media accounts. His Instagram account, with more than 21,000 followers at the time, was suspended in August 2022.
Before Sandeep's Twitter account was suspended, amid the furore over Amritpal, Twitter had already withheld the accounts of at least two other journalists in Punjab – Kamaldeep Singh Brar of the Indian Express and Gagandeep Singh of Pro Punjab TV. Meanwhile, Simranjit Singh Kotkapura, Raman Sharma and Rajveer Singh were among the journalists who faced restrictions on Facebook. Though Facebook restricted the accounts of the journalists without any notice, the Lumen database, which collects legal complaints and directions to take down online material, revealed that their accounts were blocked at the Indian government's request.
There is no official clarity on why the accounts have been banned in India. Statements and orders from officials in Punjab stated that "sections of society" frequently use social media sites as well as SMS services to disseminate "inflammatory material" and "false rumours," to incite crowds of agitators and demonstrators, and to mobilise manpower and resources for their "anti-national activities". The decision to prohibit the use of the Internet and SMS services was made in the "interest of public safety, to prevent any incitement to violence, and to prevent any disturbance of peace and public order."
Mohinder Pal, the director of the Punjab state government's department of information technology, said he had no knowledge of the suspensions when asked over the phone. "We have not blocked the accounts and have no information about them. I would not like to comment any further on it," he said before he hung up.
The suspension of accounts came as a surprise to many journalists – but the journalist and political analyst Aditya Menon, who works with The Quint, said that the ban was not surprising at all. Menon argued that the journalists whose accounts have been barred actively reported on the months-long farmers' protest, which took on the ruling government in New Delhi under Narendra Modi.
"News channels from New Delhi planted journalists in Punjab during the farmers' protest, slandering the protest," Menon said. "It was said that Punjabis were against India, due to the fact that residents of Punjab participated in the protests." Punjabis stopped relying on national news channels for information, and local journalists filled the void. "They swiftly reported the developments on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. It was during this time that people started relying upon local media."
The withholding of accounts was not limited to journalists based in Punjab. Politicians, journalists, activists and outlets in the Punjabi diaspora – the Canada-based journalist Gurpreet Sahota, for instance, and the online publication Baaz News – also saw their accounts restricted. The government also withheld a Twitter thread by the journalist Pallavi Pundir with details of a news report about the crackdown in Punjab published by Vice News.
The government action has been criticised by activists and media outlets in Punjab, who accuse it of stifling anti-establishment voices. Various countries urged the Indian government to adopt a comprehensive law on the protection of human rights defenders during the most recent Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations' Human Rights Council, held in November 2022. Speakers sought the release of all detained human rights defenders, the review of all restrictive laws, including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, and the repeal or amendment of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to ensure the right to freedom of association and strengthen press freedom in India.
On 24 March, police began visiting journalists at their homes. Harsharan Kaur, a female Amritdhari journalist, said that police visited her paternal home in Mansa district in the early hours, and that she was called to appear at a police station. After much hue and cry following news of this, the Punjab Police declared that the information was false.
The police knocked at the gates of Paramjit Singh Gazi's house at around 4:45 am one morning. Gazi runs Sikh Siyasat, a widely read news portal. A large contingent of police searched the premises of his house. "I had travelled to a different city for work," Paramjit recalled. "The female members of the family got frightened and pleaded with the police officers to call me, but they refused. My brother called me and made me speak with the police officer. My wife's and my brother's phones were taken during the raid." These were eventually returned.
"The officer sought various details regarding our work, including the names of the people who work at Sikh Siyasat," Parambir said "I refused to give any information without any legal notice because I did not want our staff to be harassed."
The police also raided the homes of other journalists, including Jagjit Singh Panjoli, Rajinder Singh Sabhra and Ranbir Singh Rana. They took the journalist Jasvir Singh Muktsar to a police station for questioning, releasing him within thirty minutes. The police also kept his and his wife's phones at the police station, Jasvir noted in a tweet.
Meanwhile, "Delhi-based media continues to spread a hate campaign targeting the minority Sikh community endlessly," Sandeep said. "There is a lot of misinformation spread by news channels. This is happening at a time when the fear in the journalistic community is widespread and the mediums to reach their readers are being gagged."
In April, for instance, after an Indian-origin man committed a murder in downtown Vancouver, there were rumours that the perpetrator was a Khalistani Sikh radical. The rumour, unfounded and unsubstantiated, was widely spread by the Indian media.
Another false story, widely shared on social media, showed Amritpal Singh in a mosque. A fact check by The Quint clarified that the image used to target Amritpal's religious identity had been morphed.
In the week following the crackdown, Jag Bani, a Punjabi daily of the Punjab Kesari group, published a news story claiming that Pakistan had been sending Muslims disguised as Sikhs to Indian Punjab in order to promote secessionism. The story claimed that "Pakistan's plans had been derailed again" since the police had caught a person impersonating a Sikh. The report went on to claim that a video of the said incident had emerged. The paper shared some screengrabs from a video, but fact-checkers uncovered that the news was false and the video showed a protest outside a stadium in 2011.
Veteran journalists including Jagtar Singh and Jaspal Singh Sidhu, who covered the secessionist insurgency in Punjab in the1980s, find the current situation similar to what they witnessed then. The parallels include a crackdown on media in Punjab, and a free hand to the national media to run their narrative on Punjab, which is different from the ground realities. In a recent video interview with the journalist Gurshamshir Singh, Jaspal Singh Sidhu recalled, "a narrative was created that the Sikhs demand Khalistan with support from Pakistan and that the Hindu population was under threat" (Hindus are a large part of the population of Punjab). Back then, Sidhu said, since print media was the only source of information, it was easier to control the narrative. The press at the time also had more credibility, but with the emergence of digital media, this had lessened. Sidhu said there was less investigative reporting then, and the authorities' version of events was easily passed off as news. Comparing the 1980s to today, he notes, "A politics of soft Hindutva under the garb of nationalism was at play then, and now it has all become about Hindutva."
Stories to tell
Paramjit said Sikh Siyasat's website had been blocked several times in the past too. During the farmers' protest, several videos by Sikh Siyasat were blocked by Youtube. In July 2021, the outlet's Facebook page was banned. After Paramjit's own Twitter handle was suspended, Sikh Siyasat's account was withheld in India. "Sikh Siyasat has been quoted by scholars from Oxford and other reputed publishers," Paramjit said. "Sikh scholars worldwide have their work published on the website. On Sikh Siyasat's Twitter account, we have not even reported on the current situation."
Many local media outlets are now resorting to self-censorship and avoiding controversial stories for fear of losing their primary source of income. One media organisation reportedly fired some of its employees following the crackdown.
"Government censorship, internet blackouts and restriction of journalists' social media accounts in Punjab are dire impositions on press freedom and democracy in India," the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in a statement issued amid the crackdown. "The IFJ urges the Indian and Punjab authorities to immediately reinstate access for all to internet and telecommunications services and cease the suppression of independent and critical voices."
In early April, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) issued a statement expressing deep concern at the arbitrary suspension of the social media accounts of several journalists and media organisations. "This has been part of the larger restrictions on internet services as well as orders of suspension of several social media accounts other than that of journalists, by the Government of Punjab since 17 March, as part of the manhunt to arrest the radical preacher Amritpal Singh," the EGI said.
To avoid intimidation, many journalists have left Punjab. Others who remain there have been unable to produce stories out of concern of repression. Yet many journalists continue to tell the stories of Punjab despite the harassment directed at the media, and even though the realities on the ground rarely find space in mainstream Indian media. Sandeep and others have been using Instagram to bust misinformation about Punjab in detailed video reports. While Sandeep's Twitter remained suspended, a journalist friend tweets updates from the ground on his behalf. Sandeep's Twitter account has since been restored.