FIRs, notices, arrests: Governments gag media amid lockdown

Senior journalists say India moving towards a situation that prevailed in the country during Emergency

COVID-19
The actions taken by the police define an environment of hostility towards the media by states and the Centre, in a way, hinting at extreme intolerance towards critical reporting. Photo: iStock

A week into the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, Himachal Pradesh journalist Om Sharma on March 29 went live on Facebook to highlight the plight of migrant workers who had staged a sit-in demanding food and rations.

Working for vernacular daily Divya Himachal, Sharma narrated the ordeals of migrant workers in Baddi industrial town who had not eaten for two to three days and the lack of arrangements to feed them.

In the next half hour, the police and a Bharatiya Janata Party councillor pleaded them to end the ‘drama’. They assured the migrants that no one would go hungry even as women expressed their fear of their children sleeping hungry.

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Later, the police charged the journalist with creating a “sensational/fake post” on social media under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 188, 182, 336 and 269. The police also booked him under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster).

Sharma told The Federal over the phone that the police had sent the FIR notice on their WhatsApp group with media persons, but neither informed him personally nor sent a copy to his residence. He alleged that the police had removed him from the WhatsApp group after he had questioned a police officer about another fake FIR.

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“Post lockdown, the police booked at least six journalists in Himachal Pradesh for highlighting the government’s failure in handling the situation,” Sharma says.

Baddi Superintendent of Police Rohit Malpani could not be reached for comments.

Vinay Sharma, a senior advocate, has come forward to help the accused journalists. He said the government had even cancelled the curfew passes issued to journalists, curtailing their freedom of reporting. “They are not just strangulating the voices of individuals, but suppressing the freedom to report the truth,” Vinay Sharma said.

After imposition of the lockdown, at least 24 media persons across the country were impeded from doing their work, as per reports of Newslaundry, a media-critic website. They have come in the form of police interrogations, FIRs, arrests, notices, and detentions, the reports said.

Vijay Vineet, another reporter from Jansandesh Times in Uttar Pradesh, did a story on Dalit children eating grass in Varanasi district (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency) to survive the lockdown.

Vineet said he and his editor were served a notice by the Varanasi District Magistrate, telling them to publish a denial report. He, however, has a video, in which a man is seen saying his family had been eating grass as they had run out of rations. Besides, the picture of kids eating grass also went viral.

In the notice, DM Kaushal Raj Sharma stated that officials had conducted an investigation and established the report as a “fabricated one”. The DM said they had not been eating grass, but wild pulses that grow along with wheat.

Vineet told The Federal that he stood by his story and the government became silent after he raised the issue with members of the Press Council of India.

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In another case, the UP Police lodged two FIRs against Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of news portal The Wire, on charges of wrongly attributing a quote to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a senior journalist, author and political commentator said while the error made by The Wire certainly needed correction [which they did later], it was nowhere close to as reputationally-damaging or incendiary when compared to the hundreds of fake news items that are fed with on a regular basis.

The police often use criminal prosecutions to gag journalists critical of the government and authorities. They invoke Section 124A of the IPC (sedition charges) — a non-bailable offence punishable by life imprisonment. Politicians and the police use defamation and sedition charges in a blunt and indiscriminate manner against the journalists.

On May 11, the Detection of Crime Branch (DCB) arrested the editor of online Gujarati news portal Face of Nation on sedition charges. Editor Dhaval Patel had published a speculative article saying that Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani might be replaced with Union Minister of State for Shipping  Mansukh Mandviya.

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Such incidents have come to light across the country — Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir among other places.

In Srinagar, the police booked a correspondent of The Hindu newspaper claiming that his report on the burial of two slain militants in Jammu and Kashmir was “factually incorrect”. They also booked another reporter, Gowhar Geelani, the journalist who wrote for The Federal among other publications, claiming that he had “indulged in unlawful activities” through his social media posts.

Even non-BJP-ruled states dealt the issue in the same way the governments ruled by right-wing parties had done. In Maharastra, the police filed FIRs against Arnab Goswami of Republic TV for allegedly stoking communal tension through his show. The Kerala police booked Zee News anchor Sudhir Chaudhary for “spreading Islamophobia” through TV debates.

In the latest press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders, an international media freedom watchdog, India ranked 142 among 180 nations. It dropped by two ranks (from 140) compared to last year. “The decline is due to pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist govt’s line,” it said.

These actions define an environment of hostility towards the media by States and the Centre, in a way, hinting at extreme intolerance towards critical reporting. There were orchestrated attempts on social platforms to discredit the media at large.

After the FIR against Varadarajan, about 3,500 academicians, actors, jurists, artists, writers, and others slammed the UP government and police, demanding that all criminal proceedings against him be dropped.

The Editors Guild of India on May 13 raised concerns about the growing pattern of misuse of criminal laws to intimidate journalists across India. Calling it ‘deeply disturbing’, the Guild also questioned the highhandedness of the Delhi Police who sent a notice to an Indian Express reporter. The journalist had reported on investigation agencies’ alleged findings that the Tablighi Jamaat leader’s viral audio clip was doctored.

The police asked the reporter to participate in the investigation process or face legal actions. “This appears to be a little more than a fishing expedition to try and extract the journalist’s sources and thus warn other reporters,” The Editors Guild of India said in a statement.

Thakurta said India was regrettably moving towards a situation that prevailed in the country during the Emergency in the mid-70s when the Indira Gandhi government muzzled the press.

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