LONDON: The International Press Institute (IPI) on Tuesday urged US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to raise the issue of press freedom during his bilateral meetings with Indian leaders, saying the recent revelations that some 40 journalists were targeted with the Pegasus spyware shows the extent to which the government has gone to invade the professional and private lives of journalists.
The IPI - an over 70-year-old global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists dedicated to defending press freedom - made the appeal in a letter to Blinken at the start of his two-day visit to New Delhi.
Welcoming Blinken's pre-visit plans to raise the issue of human rights and democracy during his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi called on the top American diplomat to also raise the issue of declining press freedom and the harassment of independent journalists and media organisations in the country.
India has previously rejected criticism by foreign governments and human rights groups on allegations that civil liberties have eroded in the country.
The government has asserted that India has well established democratic practices and robust institutions to safeguard the rights of all.
IPI, founded in 1950 at Columbia University and headquartered in Austria to promote independent journalism, said it wanted to bring to the notice of the US Secretary of State the "stifling press freedom environment in which independent media is operating in India, amidst threats and legal harassment by the government at the centre and in the states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party".
It said the recent revelations that some 40 journalists were targeted with the Pegasus spyware "shows the extent to which the government has gone to invade the professional and private lives of journalists in order to stifle press freedom and human rights in the country.
" An international media consortium recently reported that over 300 verified mobile phone numbers of over 40 journalists, three opposition leaders and one sitting judge besides scores of businesspersons and activists in India could have been targeted for hacking through the Pegasus spyware.
India has categorically rejected allegations linked to the Pegasus snooping row, saying attempts were being made to "malign" Indian democracy.
"The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed complete intolerance to criticism and resorted to legal harassment to punish those journalists and media organisations who are critical of its policies and speak truth to power, said the IPI's letter to Blinken.
"Draconian laws like sedition, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Disaster Management Act have been regularly invoked against several prominent editors and journalists who dared to question government's policies and actions, especially its response to the COVID-19 pandemic," it noted.
The letter said that since the beginning of this year, 18 cases of attacks on journalists, eight cases of arrests and 20 cases of legal harassment have been recorded by IPI in the country.
"In all these incidents, journalists and media organisations were targeted for their criticism of the federal or state governments.
These attacks are part of an increasingly hostile climate towards independent journalism in India, which has resulted in a chilling effect and forced journalists to practice self-censorship in the largest democracy in the world," the letter read.
The letter highlighted that besides filing cases, the government relies on other measures to intimidate media organisations.
"Last week, the Income Tax department raided offices of the largest circulating Hindi language daily, 'Dainik Bhaskar', and accused the news organisation of evading taxes running into hundreds of thousands of dollars without providing any evidence.
"The newspaper has extensively covered the impact of the health crisis and published photos of dead bodies floating in the river, which ostensibly offended the government," the letter read.
Besides urging the American official to raise the issue during his bilateral talks in India, the IPI also called on him to make a public statement expressing concern over the "rapid decline in press freedom and harassment of journalists."
"This would raise the sagging morale of editors and journalists in the country, as well as remind the Indian government that the international community has not turned a blind eye to the sordid developments in India," the letter said.