Human rights organisation People’s Union of Civil Liberties and global writers’ association PEN International on Tuesday condemned the first information report filed 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 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.
In a statement, PUCL called Sharma the “most recent victim of state attack on the media”. “The criminal provisions slapped on the Scroll journalists are bizarre and do not even apply to the complaint made by the aggrieved individual,” the PUCL said. Sharma has been booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (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”.
Mala Devi, the Scheduled Caste woman who Sharma interviewed, claimed in her police complaint that she had not gone hungry due to the lockdown. She also accused Sharma of not accurately reporting her employment status.
“The story says Mala is a domestic worker, while in the FIR Mala says she is a sanitation worker with the Varanasi Municipality,” the human rights organisation said. “It is very conceivable that Mala Devi, being connected to the Municipal body, can be pressurised to state anything on threat of losing her job.”
The PUCL alleged that the FIR against Sharma is an attempt to “harass her via the police machinery as she showed the failure of the state to protect livelihoods and provide for rations in the Prime Minister’s constituency”. The organisation claimed that it is “well known by now, that nobody is allowed to be critical of the PM or show his constituency in bad light”.
The non-governmental organisation highlighted a report by the Rights & Risks Analysis Group titled “India: Media’s Crackdown During COVID-19 Lockdown”, in which the authors said that at least 55 journalists have faced action for reportage on the coronavirus during the lockdown, including arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show causes notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats. It said the highest number of such attacks were reported from Uttar Pradesh.
The PUCL cited the examples of the legal action taken against journalist Vinod Dua, The Wire Editor-in-Chief Siddharth Varadarajan, columnist Aakar Patel and others to make its point about attacks on journalistic freedom. “Even television anchors, who spew hatred against minorities, intellectuals and dissenters on their primetime slots have had FIRs lodged against them,” PUCL said. “Arnab Goswami of Republic TV, Sudhir Chaudhary of Zee TV and Amish Devgan of News 18, to mention a few. Although the PUCL does not agree with their views, it stands by their right to freedom of expression, except when it incites hatred and violence.”
The NGO said that the entities that have the right to censure journalists are the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association. It urged the police to expeditiously investigate the FIRs filed.
“The media is a vital part of democracy and plays an important role in holding power to account,” PUCL said. “India has had a proud tradition of free and fearless journalism, which played a very important role in the freedom struggle and this should be nurtured. A pandemic and the subsequent lockdown should not be excuses to clamp down on the media.”
PEN International expresses concern
Global writers’ association PEN International issued a statement backing its Indian arm PEN Delhi, expressing concern over the FIR against Sharma. “That this assault on press freedom is another in a long line of such cases during the pandemic makes it even more disturbing,” the organisation said. PEN International also cited the report that found that 55 Indian journalists had faced action for reportage on the lockdown.
PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Chairperson Salil Tripathi said that the FIR showed that the real intention of the Indian state was to stifle dissent. “Supriya Sharma’s report pointed out a profound weakness in India’s poorly-planned lockdown in the wake of the pandemic,” he said. “Her stories have shown the adverse impact of the lockdown on India’s most vulnerable people. That it happened in the prime minister’s constituency is no doubt embarrassing to the government. For the police to treat the complaint as a cognisable offence shows that the real intent of the state is not to provide an effective remedy for the complainant, but to silence dissent.”
Tripathi said the invocation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act prevents the defendants from seeking anticipatory bail. He said several governments around the world have used the pandemic to crack down on dissent, and the Indian government “is no exception”. “PEN International calls upon Indian authorities to desist from using draconian laws against independent reporting and urges parliamentarians to amend the law that allows the state and individuals to use them to stop reporting [what] they don’t like,” he added.
Many journalists, media watchdogs, activists and writers have condemned the FIR against Sharma over the past week, calling it an attack on the freedom of expression, and an attempt to frighten journalists. This includes the Editors Guild of India, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Network of Women in Media, India, Delhi Union of Journalists and Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists.