In a fresh crackdown on free press, the police unceremoniously detained three journalists in Uttar Pradesh over the weekend on charges of defaming Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on social media and television. Citing various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the IT Act, the state police raided the Delhi residence of Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist, on Friday.
On Saturday, the police also detained Ishita Singh and Arun Shukla, owner and editor, respectively, of Noida-based private news channel Nation Live; the grounds for detention given were that the channel allegedly aired objectionable content against the UP CM.
The arrests have kicked up a major row and riled up press bodies against what is perceived as an attack on the freedom of expression. Kanojia was released on bail, via an order by the Supreme Court Tuesday; the bench also decried the deprivation of liberty of the journalist by state action while asking the UP police to proceed with their investigation and try Kanojia in accordance with law.
Content that maligns the CM?
The UP police arrested Kanojia from Delhi’s West Vinod Nagar for uploading a video on Twitter and Facebook; in the video, a woman is speaking to reporters of various media organisations outside Adityanath’s office, claiming to be in a relationship with him and sending him a marriage proposal. Two plain-clothed men took him away for questioning Friday noon, his wife Jagisha Arora told NDTV.
Kanojia works as an independent journalist with bylines at The Wire Hindi and Indian Express. He is currently in Lucknow Jail. Arora moved the Supreme Court Monday, challenging his arrest; the SC will take up the case for hearing on Tuesday.
According to news reports, the channel Nation Live also broadcast the video of the woman who claimed she wanted to marry Adityanath, an affirmed bachelor.
During a debate on the channel on June 6, the woman made defamatory comments, the police added.
Charges and discrepancies: Has the state gone too far?
The charges brought against the trio range from Sections 505 (1) (publication or circulation of statement, rumour or report with intent to incite) to 501 (printing defamatory matter) and even 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot). To give the police powers to arrest, provisions of the IT Act have also been added.
Initially, Kanojia was charged under IPC Section 500 (defamation) and IT Act Section 66, which refers to the tampering of a computer system with criminal intent; this is not even remotely something Kanojia has done.
A press note the UP Police released after his arrest mentioned that it had added Section 505 and replaced Section 66 of the IT Act with Section 67 (obscenity).
“The FIR itself is legally untenable,” senior lawyer Rebecca John told The Quint; she added that both IT Act Section 66 and IPC Section 500 are inapplicable to the facts of the present case.
Moreover, a defamation lawsuit can only be filed by the party that has been directly maligned, not by a third party, as is the case here. The police arrested Kanojia after a complaint by sub-inspector Vikas Kumar in Lucknow’s Hazratganj police station on Friday night.
But Section 500 pertains to private complaints, so the role of the police is practically non-existent. It is also a bailable offence, ruling out any question of an arrest.
Similarly, the FIR against the duo was filed after workers affiliated to a political party approached the police with a complaint against the news channel for broadcasting the woman’s claims without verifying facts, a senior official said.
They also claimed that the channel conducted a panel discussion without checking facts on defamatory allegations in the video, and that it was running on the licence of Network 10. The case has thus been widened to include charges of forgery and cheating under Sections 400, 467, and 469. Again, none of this is tenable in court.
The police arrested a fourth person, Raju Singh Yadav, Monday morning for allegedly uploading morphed photographs of the CM and the Kanpur-based woman on his Facebook account.
Meanwhile, the woman, who is at the centre of the video row, is “mentally unwell”, her mother said. UP Police’s Local Intelligence Officers are guarding her.
The Opposition has slammed the “illegal and arbitrary” arrest of Kanojia “for merely posting a video which fell foul of actors of State government”. Calling it a grave miscarriage of justice, Congress leader and veteran attorney Abhishek Manu Singhvi tweeted, requesting the Allahabad High Court to take suo moto cognisance of the matter.
The slew of arrests has also inflamed the journalistic community. The Editors’ Guild of India and the Network of Women in Media among others, issued statements demanding the immediate release of all three journalists; the statements also condemned the crackdown and called the arrests arbitrary and high-handed.
Besides the journalists’ immediate and unconditional release, agitators are also demanding the decriminalisation of the draconian defamation laws that enable this sort of arm-twisting.
“Whatever the accuracy of the woman’s claims, to register a case of criminal defamation against the journalists for sharing it on social media and airing it on a television channel is a brazen misuse of law,” the Guild statement said.
“The misuse of law in this specific case, as in Karnataka earlier, goes way beyond criminal defamation, as many IT Act and Indian Penal Code provisions have been invoked in what looks like a motivated and vindictive action,” it read, referring to Vishweshwar Bhatt, editor-in-chief of Kannada newspaper Vishwavani who was accused by JD(S) of publishing ‘derogatory remarks’ against Karnataka Chief Minister’s son Nikhil Kumaraswamy last month.
The police action against Kanojia, Singh, and Shukla similarly amounts to an authoritarian misuse of laws, the Guild says, adding that it is a ploy to intimidate the press and strangle the freedom of expression.
“If the ‘crime’ is to be pursued by cops without @myogiadityanath filing complaint like an ordinary citizen and you can be whisked away, then it’s farewell to free speech in UP & India #ReleasePrashantKanojia,” tweeted Siddharth Varadarajan of The Wire.
The same week the police apprehended activist Rupesh Kumar Singh and independent journalist Mithilesh Singh near Gaya, Bihar, for allegedly carrying explosives. A unit of Bihar Police searched the journalist’s house in Ramgarh and Bokaro, and seized his mobile phone, laptop, and some “Naxal literature”, News Laundry reported.
Last week also marked one year since Elgar Parishad activists Rona Wilson, Soma Sen, Surendra Gadling and others were put behind bars on unfounded conspiracy charges.
The World Press Freedom Index has registered a gradual decline for India, reflecting the growing animosity towards dissenters, journalists, academics, and activists. In 2018, India ranked 138 out of 180 countries, just one place above Pakistan and two spots lower than 2017.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
This article was updated to reflect the Supreme Court’s verdict on Tuesday, June 11.