Journalists are in the crosshairs of authorities for their investigative reports – yet again. Instead of the spotlight being trained on the truths they have tried to uncover, journalists are being targeted and harassed, detained and charged with various misdemeanours. Consider the two separate instances last week:

  1. On August 6, Narada News Chief Executive Officer and Editor Mathew Samuel was detained at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport following a lookout notice issued against him.
  2. On August 4, in response to its last week’s cover story a First Information Report was registered against Indranil Roy (Publisher), Krishna Prasad (Editor) of Outlook and Neha Dixit, the freelance journalist who investigated and wrote the story.

In both these cases, the message their reports purported to convey is undermined and belittled, as the journalists and the publications are sought to be silenced.

The Narada News case

In the Narada case, the lookout notice was in response to a complaint filed by the Kolkata Mayor and Fire and Emergency Services Minister Sovan Chattopadhyay’s wife Ratna Chattopadhyay. The minister, along with several other leaders from West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress, was purportedly seen accepting a bribe in a sting video shot by the news website and released in the run-up to the Assembly elections.

On June 17, West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee had ordered a probe into the sting, and asserted that no one from her party had accepted any money. Samuel was charged with forgery, defamation, false statements and criminal conspiracy (u/s 469, 500, 505, 171 (G) and 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code).

The sting video itself is under the investigation of an ethics committee of Lok Sabha. The Kolkata police had issued summons to Samuel, who in turn asked it to withdraw the summons as the case was under consideration at Calcutta High Court and he had “submitted all documents, materials, original footage and all the equipment” that he had used.

Criminal defamation has long been the bane of journalists. The recent Supreme Court order turning down the plea to decriminalise defamation has regrettably not addressed the media’s plight in this regard. The Hoot’s annual report on free speech, for instance, recorded 48 cases of defamation for 2015.

The Narada case raises several issues. Why, for instance, is Samuel being treated like a criminal on the run? When the Calcutta High Court is already seized of the matter, why have the police persisted with a parallel investigation and action, as he has repeatedly pointed out to Kolkata police? Instead of investigating the sting and the veracity of its claims that the Trinamool leaders exchanged money for some electoral considerations, why are police acting on Chattopadhyay’s complaint of defamation and criminal conspiracy?

It is clear that the charge of criminal defamation and the attempt to issue warrants for Sanuel, even though he has been in constant touch with Kolkata police over the investigation, only serves to harass and scare him into silence.

The Outlook case

The Assam police too appear to have shown great alacrity in acting on a complaint against Outlook magazine’s cover story ‘Operation #Beti Uthao’ published last week. A complaint under Sec 153 A of the Indian Penal Code on promoting disharmony was lodged in Latasil police station by SC Koyal, Assistant Solicitor General of India at Gawahati High Court and Bijan Mahajan, a well-known media savvy advocate and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam.

The story was about “how the Sangh Parivar flouted every Indian and international law on child right to traffic 31 young tribal girls from Assam to Punjab and Gujarat to ‘Hinduise’ them.” The five-part report uncovered shocking cases of religious indoctrination, change of identity and names and the unsuccessful attempts by the girls’ families to contact them.

Instead of action being taken against those whom the story exposed, the reaction to the story in Assam from right-wing elements was angry and even vicious, as trolls on Twitter attacked and stalked the journalist, posting and circulating photos of her personal life taken from her Facebook profile.

Others sought to refute the report and an open letter from Priti Gandhi, a national executive member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mahila Morcha was published in the DNA newspaper on August 6, and a testimony from one young woman reportedly undergoing training in medicine in a college in Ratnagiri was carried as a blog post in various right-wing sites and retweeted by BJP’s National Vice President Vinay Sahasrabuddhe.

The complainants, who chose not to lodge their protest over the article at appropriate fora – the editor of the magazine or the Press Council of India, for instance – decided to take umbrage over one sentence in the report that spoke of the plight of Bodos:

In conflict-torn Assam, parents, young men and women and children resent their situation—there’s dearth of opportunity and development and poor penetration of state welfare. For the Bodos, there’s now a manufactured hostility to Islam and Christianity, and an artificially heightened hostility to the Santhals and Mundas. Encouraged by the Sangh parivar, institutions of family, religion and patriarchy push naive tribal girls and their parents into a path of indoctrination that encourages incessant conflict. Worse, it strips them of the power to exercise faculties not in line with the elite-caste Hindutva mainstream.

According to the complainants, several riots have broken out in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District in the past and this sentence promotes communal enmity and prejudices communal harmony.

Leave alone the absurdity of plucking out a solitary sentence from report that ran into 11,350 words, the danger in misusing Sec 153 A to embroil journalists in prolonged litigation cannot be overstated. The section carries with it imprisonment of upto three years and can cover any words, written or spoken or visual representation that can promote

“disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”.

It is this very section that Dinanath Batra very successfully used against Penguin India to get Wendy Doniger’s book pulped. This section has been (mis)used against writer Perumal Murugan, editor Shirin Dalvi, the comedy group All India Bakchod, Tamil writer ‘Puliyur’ Murugesan, columnist Shobha De, literary critic MM Basheer, to name only a few. Clearly, this section needs far closer examination for its potential to be misused in curbing free speech.

Undoubtedly, there is a need for greater debate and discussion between different groups, but Sec 153A needs clear and stringent guidelines for prosecution instead of providing a free hand to those who want to fish in already troubled waters.