The Editors Guild of India on Sunday expressed concern over the criminal charges against journalist Patricia Mukhim for her four-month-old Facebook post condemning the attack on five non-tribal youth by a gang of masked men, allegedly tribals.
The guild said that Mukhim’s case was a reflection of the larger threats to freedom of speech in India, which functions under laws that are often used “indiscriminately” by the Centre and law enforcement agencies to stifle dissent.
The statement from the Editors Guild of India came days after Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times and a winner of the Padma Shri, resigned from the association. She had raised questions on why the guild chose to react to the arrest of Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami but not for her, calling it a case of “selective discrimination.”
“Mukhim’s case is an example of how multiple legal provisions can be used against free speech and therefore against free press,” the Editors Guild said. “Several provisions across multiple laws give a handle to government agencies and law enforcement authorities to lodge criminal cases against journalists wherein the criminal complaint procedure itself becomes an exacting punishment, and acts as deterrent against exercise of free speech.”
The guild said that it was the media’s “prime responsibility” to question the government and report information even if they are “harsh and disturbing”. “They cannot be held liable for relaying information that may bring to fore details on fault lines within the society, or for that matter, mismanagement and corruption in government affairs,” it said.
The guild also urged the judiciary to take cognisance of the matter that restrains freedom of speech and also issue guidelines to ensure that laws do not serve as a deterrent to a free press.
On November 10, the Meghalaya High Court had refused to quash the criminal proceedings against Mukhim. The court said that the journalist’s post “sought to create a divide to the cordial relationship between the tribal and non-tribal living in the state of Meghalaya”.
On July 3, masked miscreants had attacked five boys on a basketball court in Lawsohtun village. No arrests were made at the time of hearing at the High Court. Mukhim had criticised the Lawsohtun village council for failing to identify the “murderous elements” in the assault case. In her Facebook post, she called upon Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and the traditional Dorbar Shnong local body to take action against the culprits.
A village council in Meghalaya had filed the complaint against Mukhim for her allegedly inciting statements. Based on this, the police had registered a criminal case under various sections of the Indian Penal Code against the journalist for promoting enmity between different groups. She was also charged with defamation, among other things. Besides, she was served a notice under Section 41 A of the Criminal Code of Procedure, requiring her to appear before the investigating officer.
Mukhim had then moved the High Court. She had contended that her Facebook post only sought to show concern about the handling of the case by police and the Dorbar Shnong. She submitted that the post was made in good faith and in public interest.