On June 13, a journalist was charged with various offences by the police of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) for a story filed from within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency.
The First Information Report (FIR) lodged with the UP Police accused Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of Indian news website Scroll.in, of defamation and “attempting to spread infection.”
The allegation is based on a news report by Sharma that depicted the plight of a village in Uttar Pradesh facing hunger and misery under lockdown. Domari is one of the villages “adopted” by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi under Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, a rural development programme in which “model villages” are adopted and developed.
The First Information Report (FIR) with the local police was reportedly filed by one of the women quoted in the news story, who denied facing starvation as the story claimed.
On June 18, Sharma released a statement saying she, along with Scroll.in, stood by the story.
“This FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown,” she said.
This is not the first instance of a journalist being charged for offences because of their reporting during the pandemic.
On June 15, a report by Delhi-based human rights think-tank Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) listed 55 Indian journalists facing criminal charges and other forms of intimidations. There are cases of arrest, first information reports with the police, physical assaults, destruction of properties and threats for reporting COVID-19 stories between March 25 and May 31.
Throughout the outbreak and the lockdown that followed, the governments of India and its states have been criticised for withholding information from the public. The Indian Government has been accused of lying to the country’s top court about the troubles faced by migrant workers, while the High Court of the South Indian state of Telangana pulled up its government for lack of transparency.
At one point, the Government of India was accused of restricting journalists’ questions during its COVID-19 briefings. India continues to deny the existence of community transmission of the virus despite being fourth on the list of countries with most novel coronavirus infections. The office of Prime Minister Modi, who is yet to speak at a press conference within the country, has refused to divulge details of a fund created in the aftermath of the pandemic.
The RRAG report listed UP, where Sharma was charged, as the state with most cases against journalists.
“The behaviour of UP towards its journalists was never good,” said Prashant Kanojia, a Delhi-based journalist who documented the targeting of media persons in the state. “They don’t give out information and intimidate journalists all the time.”
Kanojia said there is a clear divide between the facts reporters find on the ground, and the version government officials want them to print. “If you show information from the ground, you’re booked,” said the journalist, who was charged with an FIR by a local political leader for allegedly tweeting “hate comments” against PM Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
In April, international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders placed India at 142 out of 180 countries at the 2020 Press Freedom Index. Prakash Javadekar, the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister of India, dismissed the report and said India “enjoys absolute freedom”.
“There is a chilling effect of taking action against one journalist so that others don't question too,” said Zubair Ahmed, a journalist based out of Andaman Islands. Ahmed was arrested in April for questioning the state’s move to quarantine people based on their call records on Twitter.
In March, an investigative report by The Caravan said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested the owners and editors of select news organisations to publish “positive stories” about the pandemic. Further scrutiny revealed that most of them followed through, while others exhibited restraint while questioning the government.
Vrinda Grover, Indian lawyer and human rights activist, told VICE News that along with using the law to crack down on journalists, the state and police officials are also ensuring that the journalists get entangled in a complicated battle.
“During the pandemic, very stringent, non-bailable sections are being invoked against journalists,” she said. “For instance, in [senior journalist] Vinod Dua’s case, sedition offence has been raised. In Supriya’s case, it is the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that is being misused. The government is blatantly deploying criminal law to strangle freedom of press.”
The “misuse” of SC/ST Act—which protects the marginalised communities from atrocities—was condemned by Indian journalist organisations.
Senior journalist Dua, at the same time, was charged with sedition, defamation and public nuisance on June 12, for his YouTube show on the Delhi communal riots in Delhi earlier this year.
“The point of lodging these FIRs is not whether [these charges] will hold up to judicial scrutiny, or a case can be made out. There is good reason for me to say that these cases will collapse before court,” said Grover. “The end goal is very different. It’s to silence any journalist asking critical questions inconvenient to the state, and to send a chilling effect so that no other journalist dares to present a version inconsistent with State speak.”
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