Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi on Friday condemned the first information report filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police against Scroll.in Executive Editor Supriya Sharma, for her report on the effects of the country’s lockdown to combat the coronavirus in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi.
“The Uttar Pradesh government cannot hide the truth by filing an FIR,” Gandhi tweeted in Hindi. “There is a lot of mismanagement on the ground during this disaster. By showing the truth, there is a possibility of corrective measures. But the UP government is filing FIRs against journalists, retired officials and opposition leaders for bringing out the truth. Shameful.”
The case against Sharma includes, among others, sections related to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The FIR filed on June 13 has also charged Sharma under Sections 501 and 269 of the Indian Penal Code. While the former deals with printing “defamatory matter”, the latter pertains to “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life”.
The police have also named the “editor-in-chief” of Scroll.in in the report.
Scroll.in has reported the article accurately and stands by it.
Many other journalists, media watchdogs, activists and writers also condemned the FIR, calling it an attack on the freedom of expression, and an attempt to frighten journalists.
The Editors Guild of India expressed concern, saying booking Sharma under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act was an “an overreaction” and will seriously undermine media freedom.
“The use of criminal provisions of the law against journalists has now become an unhealthy and despicable trend that has no place in any vibrant democracy,” the association said in a statement. “It needs to be resisted as well as eliminated.”
While the guild respects the complainant’s right to defend herself against any acts of injustice, such misuse of such laws is “unjustifiable and reprehensible”, it added. “Worse, the increasing frequency of such misuse of laws by the authorities is tantamount to shooting the messenger and destroying a key pillar of India’s democracy,” the association said.
Delhi Union of Journalists
The Delhi Union of Journalists too expressed its shock and said that it is regrettable that the state has chosen to misuse the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to charge the journalist.
In a statement, the union said it strongly condemned the use of FIRs to “intimidate journalists valiantly doing their job during the current pandemic and economic crisis”.
“Journalists run incredible risks to their own health and safety by reporting from the field,” it added. “We expect governments to respond to such reports and critiques by taking measures to alleviate distress among the people, instead of shooting the messenger.”
It cited a report by the Rights and Risk Analysis group that points out that as many as 55 journalists have been targeted in various states, “slapped with police cases, harassed, assaulted and threatened for daring to report” in the fallout of the lockdown. “We deplore all such attacks on media freedom and democracy,” the union added.
Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists
The Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists in a statement said that the cases against Sharma “are nothing short of intimidation and harassment of journalists pursuing the tragic aftermath of the lockdown, and amount to regulation and censorship of the uncomfortable truth they sought to uncover”.
“It is pertinent to note that Domari is a village near Varanasi, which was adopted by the Prime Minister under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana,” the union said. “Clearly, the facts uncovered in the report were unpalatable to the powers that be.”
The press body said the harassment and intimidation of journalists in India comes amid the ongoing crisis brought about by the spate of job losses, wage cuts and enforced furloughs.
These twin attempts to weaken journalists, in the midst of an unprecedented lockdown in a global struggle against a pandemic that has claimed scores of lives, bode ill for democracy,” it added. “The BUJ calls upon all journalists to strongly resist all such nefarious attempts and stand in solidarity with the marginalized and voiceless in society. The BUJ demands that all cases against journalists be dropped forthwith and that all efforts be made to ensure protection for journalists and journalism. ”
Committee to Protect Journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists urged the Uttar Pradesh authorities to immediately drop the criminal investigation and “cease legally harassing members of the press for their work”.
Network of Women in Media, India
The Network of Women in Media, India, condemned the FIR and the “attempts to muzzle the press and to prevent it from carrying out its duty to report on the condition of the most deprived sections of society”. The organisation demanded the withdrawal of the FIR.
“The stringent lockdown ordered to check the spread of the novel coronavirus has led to deep distress and uncertainty for contractual and daily wage workers, in both urban and rural India,” the NWMI said in a statement. “Reportage from rural areas and among vulnerable communities is crucial to inform public debate and policy at a time like this. Yet, the government and police departments across India, and in Uttar Pradesh in particular, have targeted journalists doing essential work, registering at least 55 police complaints against journalists since the lockdown in March. The UP police FIR targeting Sharma, an award-winning, senior journalist, is the latest instance of this.”
“The two sections of the SC ST Act cited in the FIR have no connection with Ms Sharma’s report,” the organisation added. “Nor do they reflect anything Mala Devi says in her complaint. The police have also, inexplicably, invoked Sec 269 IPC – ie, negligent act likely to spread infection – in the FIR...While the police continue to routinely intimidate these communities, and act hostile to them, refusing to file FIRs on serious crimes against Dalit and Adivasis, the use of the law against a journalist reporting on their vulnerability marks a dangerous new trend in police excesses and intimidation of reporters.”
It added: “Such cases drain a journalist, and small media organisations such as Scroll.in, of their financial resources. Nevertheless, Scroll.in, undaunted by such obvious attempts to stifle its courageous reporting, has said it stands by the article.”
The Wire’s Founding Editor Siddharth Varadarajan in a tweet said that by criminalising reporting on the distress of poor people, “the idea is to clearly shut down stories of suffering”.
In April, the Uttar Pradesh Police had registered a case against Varadarajan too for an allegedly defamatory news report against Chief Minister Adityanath.
Lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan shared the report for which Sharma was charged, and wrote “Dhongi land”.
Journalist Sagarika Ghose called the FIR “another disgraceful attack” on the press. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” she tweeted.
The police, the FIR states, acted on a complaint filed by Mala Devi, a resident of Varanasi’s Domari village. Sharma had interviewed Mala Devi as part of a series from Varanasi district on the impact of the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Domari village has been adopted by the prime minister under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. In the interview, Mala Devi told Scroll.in she was a domestic worker and experienced food distress during the lockdown since she did not have a ration card.
However, according to the FIR, Mala Devi in her complaint to the police alleged that Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity. She claimed she was not a domestic worker, but was employed as a sanitation worker at the Varanasi city municipality through “outsourcing”.
“During the lockdown, neither me or anyone in my family faced any problems,” the FIR quotes her as saying. “By saying that me and children went hungry, Supriya Sharma had made fun of my poverty and caste.”
In a statement, Scroll.in said:
“Scroll.in interviewed Mala in Domari village, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on June 5, 2020. Her statements have accurately been reported in the article titled, ‘In Varanasi village adopted by Prime Minister Modi, people went hungry during the lockdown.’
Scroll.in stands by the article, which has been reported from the Prime Minister’s constituency. This FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown.”