The Committee to Protect Journalists on Tuesday urged the Telangana government to immediately release journalist Ravi Prakash, who was arrested in Hyderabad on fraud allegations last week. Prakash is the founder of Telugu news website Tolivelugu.

Two Tolivelugu reporters told CPJ that Prakash was arrested three days after he refused to take down two interviews in which Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and industrialist PV Krishna Reddy were accused of corruption. Reddy had himself called Prakash with the demand, one of the reporters claimed.

Prakash was arrested on October 5 based on a forgery and cheating case filed by the company that runs TV9, a popular Telugu news channel. Prakash had stepped down as the chief executive officer of the company in May after the board revoked his powers months after a takeover by investors backed by Reddy.

The company accused Prakash of drawing Rs 6.36 crore from its bank accounts between September 2018 and May 2019 “without substantiating any entitlement under law or following the prescribed procedure”. He allegedly tried to pass it off as a bonus and ex gratia with “antedated documents without passing a proper board resolution”, The News Minute reported.

In May, after being removed from the company, Prakash had told The News Minute that the takeover in August 2018 was meant to strip him of his editorial and operational independence, as another businessman who got controlling stake was close to the chief minister. The deal to get stake in the firm was worth Rs 450 crore.

Prakash had earlier alleged that the “hostile takeover” was an attack on press freedom.

Tolivelugu interviews

The two interviews that Prakash was allegedly asked to withdraw were posted on Tolivelugu’s YouTube channel on September 30, and were related to the ongoing strike by nearly 50,000 employees of the state transport corporation.

In one interview, a transport leader accused Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and industrialist PV Krishna Reddy of being involved in a multi-million-dollar public transport scam. In the other interview, state Congress leader Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka accused Rao and Reddy of corruption in an irrigation project.

Tolivelugu reporter Narsimha Reddy told CPJ that on October 2, he got a WhatsApp message from an unknown number asking for the second interview to be made “private” on YouTube. The reporter then got a call from another number, first claiming to be from the state government and then claiming to be from the industrialist’s office. The caller warned him of consequences if both interviews were not taken down. Prakash received a call from the industrialist that night, according to the reporter.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the state government must ensure Prakash is not harassed because of his work. The organisation’s Asia coordinator Steven Butler said he was “clearly being persecuted” in retaliation for critical coverage on Tolivelugu news website.