Over 3,300 citizens have urged the Uttar Pradesh government to withdraw the first information report and drop all criminal proceedings against The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan, which they said was a direct attack on press freedom.

The website was named in an FIR earlier this month for allegedly spreading fake news against Chief Minister Adityanath, while Varadarajan was served a notice last week for allegedly making an “objectionable comment” about him.

In a statement, the signatories urged the government not to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a disguise to trample upon media freedom and endanger people’s right to information. “A medical emergency should not serve as the pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency,” the statement said. At the same time, they also asked the media to not communalise the pandemic.

The matter pertains to an article published in The Wire on March 31 against the backdrop of the controversy over an event organised by the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area that left many participants infected with the coronavirus. In a tweet sharing the article, Varadarajan had mistakenly claimed that Adityanath said, “Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus.” The next day, he posted a clarification, noting that the statement had been made by Acharya Paramhans, the head of the Ayodhya temple trust, not by Adityanath. A correction was also made to The Wire’s article.

On April 1, Adityanath’s media advisor Mritunjay Kumar had said that action had been taken against Varadarajan since he had neither deleted the tweet nor apologised.

“The target of this action is a factual story on the Tablighi Jamaat and its exposure to Covid-19,” read the statement signed by over 3,500 citizens. “Towards the end, the impugned article merely pointed out that ‘Indian believers’ more generally have been late to adopt precautions and avoid congregation, recalling UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s plans, as late as March 18, to proceed with a religious fair at Ayodhya and his flouting of the national lockdown and social distancing norms by taking part in a religious ceremony along with others on March 25.”

The signatories added that the fact that the Uttar Pradesh government sent policemen “driving across 700 km during the national lockdown to issue this summons” despite the postal system being still operational “speaks volumes for its priorities”. Last week, the Adityanath government served a notice to Varadarajan at his home, asking him to appear in Ayodhya on April 14 despite a national lockdown in place.

The signatories include former Supreme Court judge Justice Justice Madan B Lokur, former Union minister Yashwant Sinha. Bureaucrats like Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, former Chief Election Commissioner Narendra Sisodia have endorsed the statement, as have authors such as Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy and actors and artistes Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah, Nandita Das, Farhan Akhtar and Mallika Sarabhai. Over a thousand professors from universities across the globe have also signed the statement.