More than 980 activists and scholars on Monday criticised the Uttar Pradesh government after freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested by the state police on August 18 for allegedly posting a morphed photograph about a Ram temple in Ayodhya. They said Kanojia’s arrest and detention was “politically motivated and driven by vendetta”.

A statement was released by activist Teesta Setalvad, writers Meena Kandasamy, Politburo member of Communist Party of India Kavita Krishnan, and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, among others, urging the government to immediately release Kanojia. It also includes signatories from institutions such as Oxford University, Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jadavpur University and several Indian Institutes of Technology.

Kanojia, a former journalist at The Wire Hindi, was also arrested last year by the Uttar Pradesh Police for social media posts he wrote about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath.

The signatories, including his wife Jagisha Arora, said his arrest fit a larger pattern of the Uttar Pradesh administration trying to “silence dissenting voices.”

“In recent times it has repeatedly gone after activists and journalists alike using questionable legal pretexts. This is a clear attack on the right to free speech, and the Uttar Pradesh government needs to be held accountable for attempting to create this ‘chilling effect’ by intimidating and silencing its critics.”

— The statement

The signatories condemned the state’s attempt to allegedly intimidate and harass critics. They pointed out that Kanojia had immediately deleted the tweet about the Ram temple after learning that it was based on fake news. “This is a routine social media behaviour that one observes on the platform almost every day,” the statement added. “However, this was used as a pretext for arresting Kanojia.”

The statement said that the Allahabad High Court’s permission to grant the Adityanath government four weeks time to respond to Kanojia’s bail plea has ensured that the journalist remains incarcerated for a longer period of time. The court on September 21 listed the matter for hearing after four weeks, according to The Wire.

They pointed out that Supreme Court had ordered the state government to release Kanojia immediately in June 2019 after his arrest. The charges against Kanojia at the time related to a video he had shared on Twitter, which showed a woman speaking to reporters outside the chief minister’s office, claiming that she had been talking to Adityanath over video chat and had sent a marriage proposal to him. The top court had said that the order of the magistrate placing Kanojia in remand till June 22 was not appropriate.

They said the journalist has been continuously harassed even after his release from jail.

“Prashant Kanojia is a well-respected journalist with a big social media following. Being an outspoken Bahujan with a mass following, who consistently raises issues of caste-based exclusion and violence, his arrest has to be seen as an attack on the anti-caste activists. We, the undersigned, condemn these intimidation and harassment tactics of the Uttar Pradesh government and demand Kanojia’s early and timely release.”

Kanojia was arrested last month based on a first information report by a man named Dinesh Kumar Shukla. The FIR alleged that Kanojia had tweeted a morphed image of a poster with the name of Sushil Tiwari, a member of the right-wing group called the Hindu Army, on it.

The FIR claimed that Kanojia had written that “as per Tiwari’s orders”, there will be a ban on the entry of members of the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes into the Ram temple in Ayodhya. However, Kanojia’s wife had denied the charges.

The FIR against Kanojia was filed under nine sections of the Indian Penal Code, related to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language; statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes; forgery for the purpose of cheating, and defamation, among others. Kanojia has also been booked under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which pertains to online offences.