When Meghnad Bose arrived in the Delhi neighborhood of Burari to cover a Hindu mahapanchayat, or public meeting, for the Indian news website The Quint, he noted that police were already there to ensure order.
The Save India Foundation and other groups involved in the event had earlier told Bose that they planned to hold the gathering regardless of whether permission was granted.
Among those scheduled to speak was Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, a Hindu priest who under bail conditions linked to an earlier event is prohibited from participating in events aimed at “creating differences between communities.”
The atmosphere was tense, Bose told VOA. The day before, police had denied permission for the event. But around 500 people had gathered to listen to the speakers, some of whom made threatening comments directed at the media.
“Anger was evident,” Bose said. “We didn’t know how it would escalate.”
The journalist’s safety concerns came to the fore when freelance photojournalist Mohammad Meharban called to say that a mob had gathered around journalists.
“Once I reached there, the mob was manhandling the two journalists,” Bose said. He called for nearby police to help but said that at first no one responded.
“I started shooting the scene and police stopped me,” Bose said. “Subsequently (the) mob too started shouting at me to stop recording.”
Bose said police took him and the other journalists to a nearby police vehicle.
In total, seven journalists were beaten, verbally assaulted or had equipment taken during the attack. Four First Information Report requests — the first step to making a complaint with police — have been filed over the April 3 incident.
A complaint filed by a female journalist said the mob molested and assaulted her.
Delhi police did not respond to VOA’s request for comment and information about the incident. But local media cited police as saying they sheltered the journalists in a vehicle as a safety precaution.
The hostile reception to those covering the rally illustrate a wider reality for India’s media who are increasingly coming under attack while on assignment, analysts say.
“Attacks on press freedom are part of an escalating crackdown on independent and democratic institutions in the country,” Jayshree Bajoria, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VOA. “Journalists are being targeted for simply doing their work or even for their posts on social media, especially if their work is critical of the government.”
Bajoria said that the risk of threats, including via social media, increases for journalists from religious minorities.
The New York-based research and journalism organization Polis Project documented a similar pattern when it investigated attacks against media in India.
“We discovered two things,” said Suchitra Vijayan, founder and executive director of the Polis Project. Most journalists were targeted with violence and that “all kinds of harassment predominantly happened in Delhi, BJP-ruled states, and in Kashmir.”
Vijayan, who authored Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, believes India will see further escalation of violence against media, adding, “This is all part of the system in which India has become an incredibly dangerous place to be a journalist.”
Maya Mirchandani, the head of the media studies department at India’s Ashoka University, said a lack of protection for media sends a poor signal.
“All these instances where the police are standing by when journalists are getting harassed by the right-wing group of people, mob; it doesn’t instill a sense of confidence in the journalist. Even the state is not interested in them to do their job honestly, so it is an intimidation tactic,” Mirchandani told VOA during a phone call.
When asked how such attacks impact the ability of journalists to cover India’s pro-Hindu movement, Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Delhi think tank Observer Research Foundation, told VOA, “They have a major impact on the ability of journalists to cover the Hindutva movement.”
The government’s silence on such attacks, Joshi said, have “a chilling effect on press freedom in the country.”
The central office of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment. An email address provided on the party’s website returned an error message, saying its mailbox was full.
The increase in harassment of journalists has impacted India’s rankings on global indices of democracy and media freedoms.
The government says there is a free press, but that is not necessarily the truth, Mirchandani said.
“Yes, there are journalists and websites and TV channels that are continuing to do solid reporting and be critical, but they are few and far between,” she said. “The government and its ability to use state machinery to impose its agenda and ideology on the media has had an impact on the free speech.”
Part of the problem is the business model of journalism, Mirchandani said, adding that media will always be under pressure when they rely on government subsidies and advertising for revenue.
The role media play in a democracy is crucial, says Bajoria from Human Rights Watch. “Governments that believe in accountability and good governance protect it, not suppress it.”