The state of free speech in India remains a cause for concern judging by the rise in recorded attacks on the media and the increasing use of defamation suits, the most marked trends in 2014, according to a report from the Free Speech Hub of the Hoot, a media watch website.

For the first time since January, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has started collecting data on attacks on the media as a separate category. At least 85 attacks were recorded this year. In addition, there were three attacks on other citizens, ten cases of threats and three of harassment.

While more details are awaited on these attacks, the Hoot’s Free Speech Tracker has details of 18 instances of attacks and 12 instances of threats recorded this year. Of these, 15 attacks and nine threats were directed at the media, including a police assault on journalists covering news events, the sand mafia attacking an environmental journalist, separate instances of a petrol bomb and gunshots fired on the homes of journalists and reports of journalists being used as human shields in Kashmir.

Defamation cases and legal notices threatening defamation had a chilling effect on freedom of expression with 21 instances being recorded through the year, an increase from the two cases in 2012 and seven in 2013. From politicians to business houses, lawyers, former judges and media houses, defamation notices were sent to book publishers, advertisers, other media houses and journalists.

Cases against the media included those filed by justice Swatanter Kumar and Indian cricket team captain M.S. Dhoni, politician Gurudas Kamat, and the Sahara Group. Former Supreme Court judge and National Green Tribunal chairperson Kumar filed a defamation case against two English television channels and an English newspaper as well as a law intern who had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against him. He also managed to get a gag order on media reportage of the case.

In another case, Dhoni filed a 100 crore defamation case in the Madras High Court against media houses Zee Media Corporation and News Nation Network over allegations of his involvement in match-fixing.

In addition, one defamation conviction was upheld in a case filed earlier, against journalist Vir Sanghvi when he was at the Hindustan Times.

Among other cases, Infosys Ltd sent notices to three publications owned by Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd and The Indian Express Ltd. Other multi-crore defamation notices included separate notices sent by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd and Anil Ambani-led Reliance Natural Resources Ltd to journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, author of Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis. The notices were an attempt to remove the self-published book from the website promoting it.

A 100 crore notice was sent by industrialist Sai Rama Krishna Karuturi, managing director of Karuturi Global Ltd, to environmental journalist Keya Acharya. Infosys, and a former police commissioner in Pune also served legal notices on the media in the year gone by.

An increase in censorship was also recorded in the arena of literature and non-fiction books, including in academia. In February, Penguin, the publisher of The Hindus: An Alternative History by the well-known Indologist Wendy Doniger, decided to pulp all remaining copies of the book in an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan (SBA), which had filed a civil suit against the publishers in 2011.

There was a drop in the number of journalists who were killed, from eight in 2013 to two this year. Tarun Acharya in Odisha and M.N.V. Shankar in Andhra Pradesh were killed days after reporting on malpractices by local business people.

Mohsin Shaikh, a software engineer in Pune, was killed over a Facebook post allegedly defamatory to 17th century Maratha ruler Shivaji and the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. In 2013, eight journalists died, including Sai Reddy who was killed by Maoist groups in Chhattisgarh. There were five deaths in 2012 and three in 2011.

A project of the media watch site The Hoot, the Free Speech Hub has been monitoring freedom of expression in India since 2010. The Hoot compiles the list from newspaper reports.

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