On March 31, an article published in The Wire had wrongly attributed a quote by Ayodhya-based Acharya Paramhans to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Paramhans had reportedly said: “Lord Ram would protect devotees from the Coronavirus.”
The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan shared the story on Twitter and also misattributed the quote to the Chief Minister in his Tweet.
The error in the story was subsequently rectified and Varadarajan clarified that it was indeed Paramhans and not Adityanath who had made the comment. Mrityunjay Kumar, the media adviser to the Chief Minister taunted the editor on Twitter saying he would need to raise donations to fight the legal battle that would ensue as he attached copies of first information reports (FIRs) to his tweet.
While the error made by The Wire certainly needed correction, it can be argued that Varadarajan’s Tweet was nowhere close to as reputationally-damaging or incendiary when compared to the hundreds of items of fake news that people all over the country are bombarded with on a regular basis not only from social media platforms, notably WhatsApp, but also from so-called mainstream print, television and digital media outlets.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an “infodemic” across the world and India has witnessed an unprecedented flood of disinformation targetting the Muslim community, opposition politicians and critics of the government, notably muck-raking journalists.
Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology and wife of Varadarajan, wrote in a series of tweets that police personnel from Ayodhya had come to deliver a legal notice to her husband on April 11 during the lockdown. They had travelled around 700 kilometre to New Delhi and had apparently violated the social distancing norms suggested by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Varadarajan eventually responded to the notice over email.
The action against the editor of The Wire was in keeping with what the Uttar Pradesh government has been doing to intimidate journalists in the country’s most populous state, even as police personnel in certain parts of the state have been periodically proactive in debunking fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic. While in these few instances, the police have called out misinformation shared by prominent journalists on television and online media channels on Twitter, the law-enforcing authorities have not sought to act against those allegedly responsible for disseminating false information.Here’s an example.
On April 5, the prominent Hindi daily Amar Ujala had published a story from Saharanpur which stated that “…members of the Tablighi Jamaat demanded non-vegetarian food and had defecated in the open inside a quarantine facility.” The local police refuted the claims made in the story. However, no action was initiated against anyone associated with the newspaper.
While the Varadarajan episode has been much discussed, there have been a number of other instances of the Adityanath administration acting in a high-handed manner against journalists. Kunal Majumder, the India correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based independent, non-profit, non-government organisation that seeks to promote media freedom and defends the rights of journalists, has documented how journalists in Uttar Pradesh have been reeling under threats and been harassed ever since the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party came to power again in May 2019.
On March 26, Kaushal Raj Sharma, the district magistrate (DM) of Varanasi (the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha constituency) sent a legal notice to the daily Jansandesh Times claiming that a report published that day about tribal children eating grass for want of food due to the sudden announcement of the lockdown on March 24, had been “sensationalised” and was false. The DM claimed that the children were not eating grass but wild pulses.
The demand in the notice sent to the publication was that an apology be published within 24 hours or else there would be legal action taken against Vijay Vineet and Manish Mishra, the authors of the report. Vineet, who is also the editorial head of the newspaper in eastern Uttar Pradesh, told Majumder of the CPJ that he feared arrest under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which gives the state government power to punish media organisations for spreading misinformation. The two journalists have stood by their report and have refuted the DM’s claims.
In Azamgarh, another Jansandesh Times reporter Santosh Jaiswal had been arrested in September 2019 for reporting that students were made to clean the floors and the premises of the school they are studying in. The principal of the school had denied the allegations.
Pawan Kumar Jaiswal, also a Jansandesh Times journalist, was booked for “criminal conspiracy” in August. He had shot a video of students being served salt with rotis in their mid-day meals in a school in Siur, Mirzaur district. Vineet defended the reporter and had told the Kolkata-based English daily The Telegraph: “If you write the truth in Uttar Pradesh, the police and the administration who have come down to the level of goonda-like behaviour will get you.”
The school supervisor and a teacher were suspended. The video shot by Pawan Jaiswal was circulated widely on social media and naturally embarrassed the authorities. A few months later in December 2019, the police gave a clean chit to the journalist. Vineet told CPJ that the state government had stopped its advertisements in the newspaper for three months.
In June, the police in Noida arrested Anuj Shukla and Ishita Singh, editor and station-head of broadcaster Nation Live, on charges of attempting to incite violence and for allegedly defaming Chief Minister Adityanath. The broadcaster had aired a discussion on the claims of a woman who said she loved Adityanath and wanted to stay with him for the rest of her life.
Freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia was also arrested for sharing the video of the woman making the claims with a tweet: “Ishq chupta nahin chupaane se Yogi ji. (Love doesn’t hide, if you try to hide it, Yogi ji). Kanojia was arrested. He was released on June 11 following an order of a bench of the Supreme Court of India. The apex court observed: “Have you ever come across a remand for eleven days in such a case? Sit behind the bars day after day and challenge the order? That is not a very fair stand.”
While not appreciating his tweet, the Supreme Court said these could nevertheless not be grounds to keep him behind bars. It added: “The question is whether the petitioner’s husband (Kanojia) ought to have been deprived of his liberty. The answer to that is prima facie in the negative. We find that the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India and particularly under Articles 19 and 21 are non-negotiable.”
In a highly disturbing incident from the state in June 2019, Government Railway Police personnel in Shamli allegedly assaulted and abused News 24 journalist Amit Sharma, who was reporting on an incident of a train derailment. He alleged that his phone was first taken away from him and thereafter he was physically assaulted and detained for two hours. What was worse, Sharma alleged, was that policemen urinated in his mouth. Four policemen were later suspended.
Five journalists were booked by the police in Bijnor on September 7 after they reported on a case of alleged caste discrimination wherein a Dalit family was denied the right to draw water from a hand pump at Basi village. The journalists included Ashish Toma , a reporter with the Dainik Jagran newspaper (one of the most widely circulated dailies in the country), and Shakeel Ahmed, a reporter with the News18 media channel. Tomar had told CPJ that they were charged with, among other things, “promoting enmity” in society.
A photojournalist with the Hindi newspaper Swatantra Chetna, Bachcha Gupta, told Majumder of the CPJ that policemen had charged him with criminal conspiracy and trespassing in November 2019 for shooting pictures of children cleaning a police station that had been inundated after a flood in the Ganga in Varanasi.
HARASSED BY NON-STATE ACTORS
In September, Krishna Kumar Singh, a journalist with the Hindustan newspaper in Mirzapur, was brutally attacked by a mob that allegedly included supporters of a minister in the state government. He told CPJ that he has been targetted with “false” legal cases accusing him of physical assault and abuse. He claimed that these cases were lodged against him after he started reporting on local ganglords who are in cahoots with politicians and the police. “The police took over six hours to register a case of assault even though many police officials were present when I was mercilessly beaten up,” he alleged.
Journalist Akash Yadav of the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar (which, like the Dainik Jagran, is one of the most widely circulated dailies in India) had reported in October that an unqualified doctor was running a private hospital in Varanasi. The Uttar Pradesh police subsequently accused him of sexual harassment and robbery. Yadav alleged that the police had links with a “hospital mafia”.
Manoj Kumar Soni, a journalist working with Hindi daily Dainik Perfect Mission in Sonbhadra district told the CPJ reporter that six rod-wielding men had assaulted him in November 2019. He had to spend Rs 2.7 lakh on his medical treatment. He alleged that earlier, in 2008, he had been attacked but the police took no action against those who assaulted him.
It appears that the state administration has not even spared supporters of the ruling party. In October 2017, less than a year after Adityanath became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, journalist Rajesh Mishra––who was also a worker with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP––was shot dead in Ghazipur. His brother suspects the involvement of the local river sand mafia in his killing. One of the 10 accused is still at large.
In all the last-mentioned five instances, while the attacks on the journalists were allegedly the work of non-state actors, the police have been accused of either being negligent in apprehending the culprits, or slow in ensuring justice or allegedly acting in collusion with the perpetrators of the crimes.