Press Freedom and Safety of Protesters: India

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Monday 8th March 2021

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. We now move on to Front-Bench speeches. There is time for no more than 10 minutes from each Front-Bench spokesperson, leaving a couple of minutes at the end for the proposer to wind up. We go to Scotland and the Scottish National party spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP) [V]
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It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Mr Stringer. I am sure that I speak for everyone in thanking the House staff who have worked so hard to get Westminster Hall debates back up and running this afternoon. I thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate, and I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of people from across the UK who have signed the e-petition, asking that we in this House take the time to consider the plight of Indian farmer protesters and the difficult situation of many journalists currently working in India.

I acknowledge in particular the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), and thank him for the thoughtful way he opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As he said in his opening remarks, the issues are complex. It is important that we reiterate, and make it clear, that in today’s debate in the UK Parliament we have no locus on the merits or otherwise of the agriculture reform Acts passed by the Indian Parliament last year. The future of Indian agriculture is a matter entirely for the people of India and their Government.

Likewise, it is right that the Indian Government appropriately enforce law and order, and should protests cross the line into illegality, it is not our place to say that they cannot police that appropriately. But what is undeniable is that in a democracy the Indian Government have an obligation to uphold and defend the rights and freedoms guaranteed to her citizens by the Indian constitution. That includes the right to protest and the right to a free press: one that is not subject to harassment, intimidation, violence or state censorship. Therefore, while the internal political matter of agricultural reform is not a matter for this House to discuss, I do believe that on matters concerning international human rights, people outside India can, and indeed should, make their voices heard.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said, since the start of the protests there have been numerous and widespread reports of violence being meted out against protesters by both the police and Government-supporting mobs. We have all read the reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, indeed, other human rights organisations about the beatings, harassment, intimidation and unjustified detention of farmer protesters that have sadly escalated in recent weeks. Since the tractor rally and the violent clashes on 26 January, protest leaders have claimed that more than 100 people have gone missing as the Indian Government resorted to using laws of sedition to clamp down on protest. That move prompted the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to call on the Government to

“stop threatening, demonising, and arresting peaceful protesters and stop treating them as ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘terrorists”.

Amnesty International called for the

“immediate and unconditional release of activists and others who have been arrested for simply exercising their right to peaceful protest and for the government to stop the harassment and demonisation of protesters.”

In many ways, I am glad that the UK Government have called out the Indian Government. They have made their position clear: they will continue to champion human rights, and they regard the rights to peaceful protest, freedom of speech and a free press to be a vital part of any democracy.

As we heard from so many right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the crackdown against farmer protesters did not happen in isolation. It was coupled to a raft of draconian measures affecting the ability of the press to report freely what was happening. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) was right when he described the clashes on 26 January and how the Indian Government ordered mobile internet service to be suspended in the Delhi area where the farmer protests were ongoing, claiming that it was to maintain public safety. The move was quickly condemned by campaigners and trade unions, who pointed out that under international human rights law, Indian officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the free flow of information or to harm people’s ability to assemble freely or express their political views. A few days after the suspension of those internet services, the Government actually ordered Twitter to suspend the accounts of hundreds of users, claiming that they were inciting violence. A report in The Guardian afterwards said that those accounts belonged to

“news websites, activists and actors”.

As we have heard, at about the same time, eight journalists covering the protests were arrested on what Human Rights Watch has described as utterly baseless criminal charges.

With eight journalists facing criminal charges including sedition, promoting communal disharmony and making statements prejudicial to national integration, it is right that we as an international community speak out in condemnation. As the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) pointed out, the arrest of the journalists came just before other detentions including that of the 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who was accused by the police of being a key conspirator, a formulator and a disseminator of a protest toolkit for farmers. Indeed, they also claimed that she shared that knowledge with Greta Thunberg.

I was struck when the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) suggested that what was happening was nothing unusual. I beg to differ. These draconian clampdowns on press freedom and individual freedom of expression have not just been condemned by international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights watch; a whole raft of journalist groups in India have been unequivocal in their condemnation. The National Union of Journalists in India, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Kashmiri Journalists Association, the Delhi Union of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Boarders and the Indian Journalists Union have all released statements on the crackdown on press freedom and in support of the journalists covering it. As we heard, the International Press Institute has taken up the matter directly with the Prime Minister and has asked him to intervene.

As was said in the opening minutes of this debate, how India wants to organise its agricultural sector is entirely and exclusively a matter for the Indian Government and their people, but human rights abuses and the silencing of the press are a matter for us all. Rajat Khosla, senior director of research, advocacy and policy at Amnesty International, said:

“We have seen an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest the government’s repressive laws and policies…The crushing of dissent leaves little space for people to peacefully exercise their human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the country.”

There has been an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest against them. We add our voice to those in the international community and domestic organisations calling for the Indian Government immediately to stop their crackdown on the protesters, the farmers’ leaders and journalists. We want to see the immediate and unconditional release of all those who have been arrested and detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The shutting down of the internet, the censoring of social media and the use of draconian laws against protesters and journalists who have been peacefully voicing opposition to the new laws and questioning the Government’s methods must immediately cease.

Freedom of speech, the right to protest and a free press are the hallmarks of a democratic society. A democracy cannot function if those fundamentals are under attack, suppressed or eroded. Right now, it appears that all is not well in the world’s largest democracy. It is up to the Indian Government to show their own people and the international community that they want to protect that democracy and create a country that works for all its citizens. I urge them to take heed of what has been said here this afternoon, and indeed across the world, look at their own actions and act for the benefit of all their citizens.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening this debate. I pay tribute to the many tens of thousands who secured the debate through the petition process—what a great example of democracy in action.

We have heard many memorable and passionate contributions. I look forward to the Minister setting out what actions the Government will be taking. I particularly thank the other contributors to the debate, not least my 11 hon. Friends who made some truly compelling arguments. The fact that the overwhelming majority of contributions to the debate have come from the Labour Benches shows how hugely important this issue is to our party.

The farmers’ protests taking place in Delhi relate to three new agricultural laws that affect farmers. Taken together, they loosen the rules relating to the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, allow private buyers to stockpile essential commodities for future sale, and set out rules for contract farming. The legislation is deeply controversial, and Opposition figures and the protesting farmers have complained that there was insufficient consultation. The ongoing protests on the outskirts of Delhi illustrate the strength of feeling and the level of anger that so many members of the farming community feel. Prime Minister Modi will by now be acutely aware of the backlash against his policies, but India is a sovereign, democratic nation, and its agricultural laws are a domestic matter.

In a democracy, there will always be different views on the right course of action to take. We acknowledge and fully respect that those views are held passionately by many British Indians and those who retain close ties to India, but as it is a domestic issue it would not be appropriate for the UK Labour party to comment on the specifics of the legislation itself, so I will not do so today. However, since the first worrying evidence of escalating violence emerged, the Opposition have been urging the Indian authorities to protect and defend the universal human rights of all those protesting in India. I assure hon. Members present that we shall continue to do so without fear or favour.

The Labour party’s foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights and freedoms at the very heart of our global agenda, and we call for those principles to be upheld consistently in every country across the world. Let me stress in absolute terms that the Labour Front Bench stands firmly behind the rights of Indian farmers to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.

That is why on 1 February I issued a statement in which I drew attention to the escalating violence and the clashes between the farmers and police, and the threat to essential democratic rights. I called on both sides to show restraint, but made it clear that the onus is on the Indian authorities to protect the farmers’ right to peaceful protest, to respect their right of freedom of assembly and expression, and to respond to any incidents of civil disobedience in a proportionate and appropriate manner. For instance, we are deeply concerned about reports of live ammunition being used by the police. We of course call on demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful and within the constraints of the law. The Red Fort incident on 26 January is an example of where both sides must understand the limits of what is acceptable, and that certain actions are likely to provoke outrage and escalation.

In recent weeks, campaigners have been particularly concerned about the Indian authorities’ disregard for freedom of expression, and specifically for media freedoms. Human Rights Watch has stated that during the protests the authorities have introduced politically motivated charges against activists, and charged journalists and Opposition politicians with sedition simply for reporting on claims made by the family of a dead protester.

Following the Red Fort clashes between protesters and police, the Indian Government shut off the internet as a way of curbing the protest, suspending 4G mobile internet services in three areas around Delhi, where tens of thousands of protesting farmers are camping. Services were restored, but it is clear that bans of that sort violate basic freedoms. The Labour party therefore calls on the Indian authorities to recognise the vital role that independent journalism plays within a democracy, and to protect its journalists from reprisals.