A television journalist who was arrested in Mumbai for allegedly spreading misinformation about special trains for migrant workers was granted bail on Thursday, PTI reported. Earlier in the day, a local court had denied police the custody of Rahul Kulkarni and had instead remanded him to judicial custody, following which his lawyer filed for bail.
Kulkarni, a correspondent for ABP Majha, had reported on Tuesday about an internal note circulated among South Central Railway officials that suggested that a decision had been made to run special trains for migrant workers stranded amid the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The same evening, over 1,000 migrant labourers gathered outside Bandra West station in Mumbai, believing they could travel home by train. The police used batons to disperse them.
Kulkarni was arrested the next day, along with 10 others, for allegedly spreading rumours that resulted in the gathering. The police suspect the journalist’s claim may have prompted the migrants’ gathering.
He was produced before the Bandra Metropolitan Magistrate court on Thursday. Police sought his custody, claiming that the journalist had a role in the crime and was not cooperating in the investigation. The court refused to entertain the police application.
Kulkarni’s lawyer argued there was no connection between the report and the migrants’ gathering. He said the journalist had filed the report based on a genuine letter that he had accessed. The report was aired on the channel on Tuesday morning, but after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised address at 10 am, ABP Majha ran other reports about the lockdown being extended and trains being cancelled until May 3. In his 10 am address, Modi had announced the extension of the lockdown until May 3.
The court then granted bail to Kulkarni on a surety of Rs 15,000 and allowed him to return home in Osmanabad and quarantine himself there for two weeks as he had “undergone transportation to and from high risk zones of Covid-19”, reported The Indian Express. Kulkarni was also asked not to “indulge in any controversy as the present one and should observe utmost precaution while making news report[s]”.
The other 10 accused were sent to police custody till April 19.
Kulkarni has been booked under Sections 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and 505(b) (intent to cause fear or alarm among public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against public tranquility) of the Indian Penal Code as well as sections of the Epidemic Diseases Act.
The South Central Railway has not denied the veracity of the internal note about which Kulkarni had reported. Chief Public Relations Officer for South Central Railway Rajesh Chilaka told the Indian Express that the letter was part of a “preparatory exercise” and claimed that its contents had been “taken out of context”.
Kulkarni in a Facebook post on April 14 said that the circular had been shared with him by a “responsible officer” of the Railways, explaining the measures taken to help the stranded people. His report did not mention the date or time of the train services.
Meanwhile, the News Broadcasters Association described Kulkarni’s arrest a “frontal assault” on the freedom of the press and urged Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to get the charges dropped, PTI reported. The association’s chief, Rajat Sharma, said the journalist had impeccable record and his arrest was unreasonable.
“The fundamental right of freedom of speech is sought to be gagged and any further custody and incarceration of him would be a serious infraction of the constitutional mandate and would also threaten his life,” Sharma said.