Media freedom at stake amid arrests of journalists

There is a need for urgent measures to prevent the increasing use of sedition laws and other legal sanctions against journalists to ensure that they are able to work without harassment and fear of reprisal, writes Mudit Mathur

The day TV anchor Arnab Goswami arrested for allegedly on the charges of abetment to suicide his interior designer by Maharashtra police, the issue of assault on freedom of expression of the journalist community once again resurfaced. The galaxy of ministers of Narendra Modi cabinet came out openly in his 

support against Shiv Sena government expressing concern reminiscing undemocratic emergency days when Congress party muzzled critical voices of the media putting them behind the bars. But harsh reality speak volumes of high-handedness that many journalists writhed on account of their writings across the states ruled by different political dispensations with a sole motive to silence dissent and criticism which is the most cherished constitutional right of every citizen.

Recently, the Supreme Court came down heavily against the growing trend of police in different states summoning and arresting individuals from remote corners for social media posts allegedly defaming political dispensations had observed, “We cannot have citizens hauled from one corner of the country to another for a social media post criticising the government.” The stern warning prompted by West Bengal police issuing summons to a Delhi resident who had criticised the state government for non-enforcement of lockdown norms. Many other states rocked with similar incidences of intolerant behaviour of the police forceover media reporting of administrative mismanagement during Tablighi Jamaat and migrant labour crisis. Targeting media persons under serious offences actually sent dangerous and disturbing signals about the survival of freedom of expression in the Indian subcontinent of Asia.

Emphasizing the sacrosanctity of free speech guaranteed to citizens under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution and vowing to protect it at all costs, a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud
and Indira Banerjee said, “Do not cross the line. Let India remain a free country. We, as the Supreme Court, are here to protect free speech. The reason why the SC was created by the Constitution is to ensure that ordinary citizens are not harassed by the state.”

The growing concern over protection of free speech and expression from the highest echelon of power drew the attention of the top court to the affairs of various states with regard to shrinking space for fair and fearless reporting. The wrath of ruling party displayed through large-scale victimization due to alleged fabrication of cases against them for their reports, videos, and in some cases, even tweets who did not to toe the lines of their convenience.

The criminal cases of alleged outrageous atrocities against journalists have surfaced from Uttar Pradesh,Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Odisha, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Delhiostensibly for their unfavourable comments or writings in media.

Uttar Pradesh

The allegations of targeting journalists over their writings appeared against administration under Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government from time to time. Majority of such journalists were charged under Indian Penal Code sections 500 (defamation), 501 (printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory) and 505 (1) (B), which deals with offences committed with the intention to cause fear or alarm among the public, or induce people against the state. The police have also charged him with offences listed in the Information Technology Act and Disaster Management Act.

Reiterating his strong opposition to the illegal arrest of Republic Media Network’s Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in press conference in Kolkata stated that, “No party should attack press freedom. It has been Congress’ culture since the Emergency to suppress press freedom.” Several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar had voiced their support for Goswami and condemned the Maharashtra government for his arrest. The BJP leaders Tajinder Bagga and Kapil Mishra were detained for staging a demonstration, seeking the journalist’s release.

UP chief minister Adityanath had blamed the Congress for the arrest of journalist Arnab Goswami. “The arrest of senior journalist Mr Arnab Goswamiji is an attack on freedom of expression by the Congress party. The Congress, which is responsible for imposing emergency, is once again trying to throttle the democracy,” Adityanath had said in a tweet.

Reacting over the growing incidents of targeting journalists, the Editors Guild of India urged the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to free jailed journalists, withdraw cases that were being reviewed, and ensure the safety of all mediapersons working in the state. In a strongly worded letter to the chief minister, the Guild mentioned several incidents that took place in the state recently raised concerns about the “space for free, fearless and independent journalism.”

“While you were right to promptly uphold the freedom of the press when an editor of a TV [television] channel was arrested in Mumbai, there are far more compelling cases of intimidation, harassment by authorities of working journalists in UP, who were prevented from doing their job,” asserted Seema Mustafa, the president of the guild, its General Secretary Sanjay Kapoor and Treasurer AnantNath in a protest letter. “Many of them have been unjustifiably arrested on spurious charges,” the letter added.

The guild also mentioned the cases of some journalists facing legal action in Uttar Pradesh, including that of Siddique Kappan, a Delhi-based journalist working for a Malayalam news portal Azhimukham, who was arrested while on his way to Hathras to report the rape of a Dalit girl and was later booked under the UAPA.

The Guild cited the cases against Supriya Sharma, Executive Editor of Scroll; Ravindra Saxena, who reported about the mismanagement of a quarantine centre of Maholi tehsil of Sitapur, and was booked under SC/ST Act and the Disaster Management Act; Vijay Vineet and Manish Mishra of local daily Janadesh Times who were booked for showing visuals of children eating grass in Koiripur village in Varanasi district and Asad Rizvi, a Lucknow based freelance journalist, who was assaulted by the police on October 2, while he was reporting on protests in the city in the aftermath of the Hathras rape case.

Siddique Kappan: Kappan, a Delhi-based journalist who works for Malayalam news portal Azhimukham, accompanied by three others, was on his way to Hathras, to report the gang rape of a Dalit girl, when he was picked up in Mathura on October 5, 2020 and later booked under Section 17 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Two others, reportedly associated with Campus Front of India, the students’ wing of Kerala–based Popular Front of India, were charged by the UP police of planting evidence in the form of a pamphlet. Kappan, along with others, is lodged in Mathura jail. According to the police they were part of an internationally-funded “conspiracy” to stoke caste riots in UP in the wake of the Hathras gangrape. On November 4, the Mathura chief judicial magistrate granted 48-hour police remand to the UP Special Task Force for questioning. “He still remains in jail and his family hasn’t been allowed to speak to him,” the letter said.

Supriya Sharma: A case was registered against Supriya Sharma, Executive Editor of Scroll, on June 18, 2020 under the SC/ST Act and IPC 501 (printing or engraving matter known tobe defamatory), and 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) for reporting a series of stories on the poor state of affairs in Varanasi, PM Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency. “The case was filed on the complaint of Mala Devi, a resident of Domari, the village adopted by PM Modi in Varanasi, alleging that Supriya Sharma had wrongly reported that her condition had worsened during the coronavirus induced lockdown due to a shortage of food support,” the letter added.

Cases were filed against five journalists of Bijnor- Ashish Tomar, Shakil Ahmed, Lakhan Singh, Aamir Khan and Moin Ahmad on September 7, 2020 under IPC 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 268 (public nuisance) and 503 (criminal intimidation) and Section 66A of the IT Act. The FIR had accused Tomar and Ahmed of trying to vitiate social amity by circulating fake news about a Valmiki family from Titarwala Basi village, under Mandwar police station, putting their house on sale after not being allowed to collect water from the village hand pump due to the harassment of local musclemen. The journalists stood by their story and the district administration had to take back the case after an action committee of scribes lodged a protest.

Ravindra Saxena: For reporting about the mismanagement of a quarantine centre of Maholi tehsil of Sitapur, this reporter of Today-24 newsportal was booked under SC/ST Act and the
Disaster Management Act. A Scheduled Caste employee at the Sub-Divisional Magistrate office accused the journalist of violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Disaster Management Act. A Scheduled Caste employee at the Sub-Divisional Magistrate office accused the journalist of violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Disaster Management Act. After protests of journalists, Saxena’s arrest was stalled but the FIR has not been withdrawn.

Vijay Vineetand Manish Mishra: Cases were filed against these journalists from a local daily Janadesh Times for their report appearing on March 26, 2020 regarding the plight of the Musahar residents of Koiripur village in Varanasi district accompanied by a visual showing children eating grass.

AsadRizvi, a Lucknow based freelance journalist, was assaulted by the police on October 2, while he was reporting on protests in the city, in the aftermath of the rape of a dalit girl in Hathras a few weeks earlier. In a complaint letter written by Rizvi to police and state authorities, he mentioned that he was beaten up by 7-8 policemen, even though he had told them he was a journalist and was simply covering the protest site. After that, the police tried to break his mobile phone and confiscated his memory card.

Editor’s Guild reminded Yogi Adityanath, “As the Chief Minister of India’s largest state, you are well aware of the important precedence that the state sets with respect to safeguarding all constitutional rights. This is especially crucial with respect to preserving the space for free media, more so at a time when the world has been in the throes of a pandemic.” “Media has played an important role in raising awareness about the pandemic, they emphasised.

Siddharth Varadarajan: The Uttar Pradesh police in Faizabad registered an FIR against The Wire and its editor Siddharth Varadarajan on 1 April for reporting that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had attended a public religious event in Ayodhya on 25 March after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national Covid lockdown announcement. Varadarajan has been booked under Section 188 (disobedience of an order issued by a public servant) and 505 (2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) of the IPC. The High Court granted him bail.

Prashant Kanojia: UP police forcibly arrested Prashant Kanojia from Delhi twice. First time he got reprieve from the Supreme Court ordering his release forthwith on the habeas corpus petition filed by his wife Jigisha Arora in 2019. On 7 April 2020, the Lucknow police lodged an FIR against journalist Prashant Kanojia for allegedly making “objectionable remarks” about PM Modi and CM Adityanath on social media in Ashiyana police station on a complaint registered by local BJP leader Shashank Shekhar Singh. Kanojia was charged for defamation, printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory and offence committed with the intention to cause fear or alarm among the public, or induce people against the state. “I also found some of his tweets containing hate comments which could divide communities, and also disturb law and order of the state,” alleged the complainant.

Manish Pandey: The police summoned journalist Manish Pandey of News1 India to the Special Task Force headquarters in Lucknow on 30 April for publishing an official letter on poor quality of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. Manish says, “Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi and Samajwadi Party Chief tweeted about his victimization that saved me from jail but the bureaucratic pressures compelled me to resign.”

“Even today I am suffering displeasure of the officers after exposing reality of ‘Namammi Gange’ project in Kanpur contrary to CM Yogi’s claims,” he asserted.

Pawan Kumar Jaiswal: Jaiswal has been targeted for doing his job. Jaiswal made a video of the ‘namak-roti’ (salt and flatbread) being served to children as mid-day meal in a school of Mirzapur. He was booked on the report of Block Education Officer Prem Shankar Ram at Ahiraura police station under sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharging duty), 193 (false evidence) and 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code. Local journalists protested and national media picked up the story exposing the governments’ shortcomings.

Amitabh Rawat: An FIR was registered against Rawat for publishing the video of a minor girl cleaning the floor at the district hospital in Deoria. The police report alleged that he was indulging in the “despicable work” of maligning the image of the Uttar Pradesh government. The journalist in question recorded a video of a minor girl cleaning the floor in the female ward of the district hospital in Deoria where her ailing mother lost her control over her urinary pressure in a gallery. The irate staff forced the little girl to wipe and clean floor. Journalist Rawat filmed and shared the clip on social media.

Ajay Bhadauria and Vivek Mishra: In Fatehpur district Vivek Mishra did a story in Dainik Bhaskar on dysfunctional cowsheds last year in December. District Magistrate filed FIR against him. Similarly he charged Ajay Bhadauria, “Bhadauria has constantly used his personal Twitter account to besmirch the administration by tweeting one-sided, delusional rumours.”DM issued press note saying his investigations through District Information Officer revealed that he was not associated with any print or electronic media in 2020 though he has a track of 32 years in journalism.The journalists of Fatehpur attracted national attention by protesting in the water of Ganga river.


Rahul Kulkarni: On 15 April, the Mumbai Police arrested ABP News correspondent Rahul Kulkarni “for spreading rumour” over his report that the Railways would restart operations (amid the lockdown), which the police alleged may have prompted gathering of hundreds of migrants outside the Bandra station in Mumbai.

Rahul Zori: A month later, the police booked Rahul Zori, a reporter with TV9 Marathi, for reporting on irregularities in the running of Hadakhed relief camp for migrants in Shirpur tehsil of Dhule. Zori was booked under penal sections for obstructing a public servant from doing their duty, defamation and publishing matter known to be defamatory.

Arnab Goswami: The long-running battle between Republic TV and the Maharashtra government started with the Mumbai Police’s case against the channel owner and journalist Arnab Goswami for promoting social disharmony after he accused Congress president Sonia Gandhi of orchestrating the Palghar lynching. Goswami was booked under several sections including abetting commission of offence by the public or by more than 10 persons, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity between different groups, defamation, and intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace.

Himachal Pradesh

Om Sharma: In March, three FIRs were registered against Om Sharma, a reporter for Divya Himachal, for his reporting on Covid-related issues. In one case he was accused of spreading “sensational/fake news on social media” after he went live on his Facebook page, showing the plight of migrants, who protested on the roadside near the industrial area of Baddi over unavailability of ration. In another case, he was booked for sharing an Amar Ujala report on Facebook. He was booked under Section 54 (punishment for false warning) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and four sections of the IPC: 182 (false information), 188 (disobedience to a public servant’s order), 269, and 336 (endangering life or personal safety of others).

Jagat Bains: Three FIRs were registered against Jagat Bains, a reporter with News18 Himachal, in the same month for his reporting on how rations were not reaching migrant workers in parts of Nalagarh subdivision in Solan district.

Vishal Anand: In April, journalist Vishal Anand was accused of misrepresentation and was booked for using pictures of Gandhi Chowk in Dalhousie for a story on Covid in Chamba district.

Ashwani Saini: In the same month, five FIRs were registered against Ashwani Saini, who contributes video reports for the Facebook page Mandi Live and freelances for Dainik Jagran. Saini was accused of spreading “fake news” after he reported on the failure of the administration to supply rations to migrant workers in Bharajwanoo village in the Sundernagar subdivision in Mandi.

Somdev Sharma: In May, Somdev Sharma, a Manali-based correspondent for Punjab Kesari, was booked by the police after he reported on the administration’s laxity in quarantining inter-state travellers. The police claimed that Sharma had falsely written in his report that a person entered the district illegally without a pass and hence created panic.

Jammu and Kashmir

Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai: Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai, who was working for Kashmir Observer, was arrested on 11 April for “violating the lockdown rules” and “interfering in the professional work of the officials”.

Masrat Zahra: J&K Police booked Masrat Zahra, a freelance photojournalist, under UAPA for her alleged anti-national posts on social media. The police claimed that the Cyber Police Station received information through reliable sources that she was uploading anti-national posts with the criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility.

Peerzada Ashiq: On 20 April, Peerzada Ashiq, a journalist with The Hindu, was sent a notice on 19 April and asked to explain “factual inaccuracies” in a story regarding an encounter between militants and security forces in south Kashmir’s Shopian. Two families had come forward to claim the bodies of the slain militants whom the authorities had called unidentified. The police claimed Ashiq’s report was “fake news” and was published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities. A case was also registered against him.

Gowhar Geelani: On 21 April, the Cyber Police Station of Kashmir Zone booked journalist and author Gowhar Geelani for allegedly indulging in unlawful activities through social media that are “prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India”. Geelaniwas alleged to have been glorifying terrorism in the Valley through his posts.

Tamil Nadu

Damodharan: On the night of 7 April, Sun News journalist Damodharan, who shot visuals of a pharmacy staff handing out medicines to patients without a doctor’s consultation at the Primary Health Centre in Minjur, was arrested for spreading “fake news”. He was booked for cheating, forgery, and preventing a public servant from discharging his duty on the complaint of a doctor.

Andrew Sam Raja Pandian: On 23 April, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, founder of a portal called SimpliCity, was arrested in Coimbatore for filing news reports related to doctors facing shortage of food and PPE kits at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital and diversion of ration items by employees of PDS shops. After the publication of the report, the Assistant Commissioner of the Coimbatore Corporation, filed a complaint against the portal calling the report “false” and “provocative.”


Rajesh Sharma: In September, a freelance journalist Rajesh Sharma was arrested under the Officials Secret Act for passing on sensitive information to China in exchange for hefty amounts since 2016.

Vinod Dua: A case was filed against senior journalist Vinod Dua on complaint of one Naveen Kumar for the former’s YouTube show, in which he had talked about the riots that had happened in Northeast Delhi. The complaint was filed over 70 days after the webcast.

Madhya Pradesh

KK Saxena: On 27 March, an FIR was lodged in Bhopal against journalist K.K. Saxena for having attended Congress leader Kamal Nath’s last presser as CM on 20 March despite her daughter being a Covid suspect.

Tansen Tiwari: On 24 May, veteran journalist Tansen Tiwari was booked by the Madhya Pradesh Police for allegedly referring to BJP leaders as ‘gappu’ and ‘tadipar’ in a social media post. The police registered the case after a local BJP leader and advocate, Awdesh Singh Bhadauria, said that Tiwari’s post on Facebook indirectly described PM Modi as ‘gappu’ and other party leaders as ‘tadipar’ and ‘balatkari’.


Abhilash Padachery: On 1 May, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) detained journalist AbhilashPadachery for his alleged links with Maoists in Kerala. The NIA claimed that it found several documents supporting Left-wing extremism and banned CPI(Maoist) from Padachery.

Sudhir Chaudhary: On 7 May, the Kerala Police filed a case against Zee News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary for a controversial programme showing a “jihad chart” and detailing different “types of jihad” in a flowchart.

West Bengal

Bhupendra Pratap Singh, Abhishek Singh, Hemant Chourasiaand Ayush Kumar Singh: Kolkata Police booked four TV journalists in as many as five cases after they conducted a sting operation to show state ministers and Trinamool Congress MLAs allegedly taking bribes. The Kolkata Police alleged that the four journalists were involved in a bid to extort money from politicians. On 22 May, the Supreme Court restrained the state police from arresting the four journalists.


Sharat Kumar and Lokendra Singh: On 1 October, the Ashok Gehlot-led government filed a case against Aaj Tak journalist Sharat Kumar and former deputy CM Sachin Pilot’s media advisor Lokendra Singh, accusing them of spreading “fake news” about the alleged phone tapping of MLAs during the political crisis in the state in July. The two have been charged with circulating wrong or non-verified news, conspiracy. Sections of the IT Act, which empower the police to search their phones and laptops, have also been slapped.


Ramesh Rath: On 15 October, Odisha Television (OTV) senior reporter Ramesh Rath was arrested. OTV is owned by BJP vice-president Baijayant Panda’s wife Jagi Mangat Panda. The channel alleged that Rath was arrested after OTV telecast an expose on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s claims of an aerial survey of the flood-hit areas of the state, which was based on RTI revelations. The channel reported that Patnaik’s flying time was just 19 minutes. He was later released and asked to report to a police station in Keonjhar district on 21 October. He didn’t do so citing health reasons.


Jai Singh Chibber: On 22 May, a Punjabi Jagran reporter was booked by the state police for writing a report about an unnamed Congress minister, who was said to be following astrological advice. The police registered a case against the journalist, Jai Singh Chibber, for disobeying a public official and making statements which incite the commission of an offence and obscenity.

Andaman & Nicobar Islands

Zubair Ahmed: Freelance journalist Zubair Ahmed was arrested by the police in Andaman and Nicobar on 27 April for posting a tweet that questioned why families were placed under home quarantine for merely speaking over the phone with Covid patients.


Pawan Chaudhary: On 6 April, web journalist Pawan Chaudhary was arrested in Munger in Bihar on the charges of spreading misinformation about the death of Covid patient.


Neeraj Shivhare: In last week of April, a show cause notice was sent to NeerajShivhare, who works for website Bastar Ki Aawaz, for reporting on the plight of a woman who had to sell her household items to arrange food during the Covid lockdown, which the authorities said had “damaged the image of the administration”.


Dhaval Patel: On 11 May, the Gujarat Police arrested Dhaval Patel, editor of online Gujarati news portal Face of Nation, and booked him for sedition for allegedly publishing a speculative report on possible change in state leadership due to criticism over rising number of Covid cases. Patel had claimed that the BJP high command had chosen Union Minister Mansukh Mandaviya to replace Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani. The police said the story was “baseless and amounted to create instability and atmosphere of fear in the State amid pandemic”. However, the Gujarat High Court (HC) has quashed a sedition case registered against him.

The order by a single-judge bench of Justice R P Dholaria came after the journalist, Dhaval Patel, editor and owner of Face of Nation, filed an unconditional apology “without admission of any guilt” for the “allegedly offending article.”

Aakar Patel: On the complaint of BJP MLA PurneshbhaiIshwarbhai Modi, the Gujarat Police arrested journalist Aakar Patel for posting allegedly offensive content against a particular community on Twitter. He was arrested but not detained as he was granted anticipatory bail.


KN Nagegowda, Sunil, H.S. Mahesh and Madan: MLC KT Srikantegowda’s son KrishikGowda lodged a police complaint against these four reporters in Mandya, alleging that they abused his father and assaulted him at AmbedkarBhavan during a Covid test camp for journalists.


Paramesh: In May, Telugu news channel V6 journalist Paramesh alleged that his under-construction home was demolished in retaliation for his reportage of an MLA’s violation of lockdown rules. Paramesh had reported that MLA Mahareddy Bhupal Reddy, celebrated his birthday with over 500 supporters.

The apex court had consistently held that freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of Press and it is Court’s duty is to uphold it and, invalidate all laws and administrative actions interfering with it. “Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to governments and other authorities. The authors of the articles which are published in newspapers have to be critical of the actions of government in order to expose its weaknesses. Such articles tend to become an irritant or even a threat to power. Governments naturally take recourse to suppress newspapers publishing such articles in different ways,” it held while deciding cases led by Indian Express and other newspaper groups protecting free speech.