Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Mumbai: An Uttar Pradesh police first information report (FIR) filed on 18 June 2020 against Supriya Sharma, award-winning Executive Editor of Scroll.in, and the website’s “Chief Editor” is the latest in a series of legal actions against journalists in India in general and India’s most-populous state in particular.
Four charges were filed against Sharma and her editor Naresh Fernandes on a complaint from Mala Devi, a single mother of five quoted in an 8 June story that Sharma wrote on how people went hungry during the lockdown in a Varanasi village adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“This FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown,” Scroll.in said in a statement.
“We would sleep on chai and roti, sometimes not even that,” Devi, a domestic worker, was quoted as saying in Sharma’s story.
“After her employers stopped paying her during the lockdown, the domestic worker made furtive trips to Banaras, in the hope that she would find some odd jobs or gather alms to buy food for her five children,” wrote Sharma, who won the Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Woman Journalist for 2014-15 and the prestigious Ramnath Goenka award for Reporting on Politics and Government for 2014.
No anticipatory bail is possible under two sections of law in the FIR against Sharma. These are from the The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The other two charges are from the Indian Penal Code: defamation (section 501) and a “negligent act” in spreading infectious disease (section 269), punishable by fines and/or imprisonment up to six months and two years respectively.
“The sections which have been invoked in the FIR, are, on the face of it, not made out,” said Shadan Farasat, a Supreme Court lawyer, who argued that a defamation complaint requires a private complaint before a magistrate not through an FIR at a police station and the question of spreading an infectious disease is “not at all made out”.
“As far as the SC/ST act is concerned, it is clearly a stretch to invoke it,” said Farasat. “It is not maintainable at all."
“This is a pattern in UP where fact-based reporting which is critical of the government is criminalized one way or the other,” said Farasat, who made a distinction between FIRs filed against journalists for hate speech and for factual reporting.
“Criminal proceedings against hate-mongering journalists are not wrong because they are committing clear-cut offences by inciting people,” said Farasat. “In cases like Sharma’s, genuine fact-based reporting critical of the government is being criminalised.”
Also Read: The Sedition Trial Of Editor Dhaval Patel
"Technically the way FIR has been registered, (it) looks like PoA [Prevention of Atrocities Against SCs and STs] act may not sustain,” said Rahul Singh, a lawyer associated with Dalit rights. “You need to check with the complainant on her version and then reach any conclusion (sic).”
The FIR against Sharma is the latest of tens of cases filed against journalists between 25 March, when Modi announced a lockdown to address the Covid-19 outbreak, and 31 May, according to a new report by a think tank based in New Delhi. At least 55 journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show causes notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats for reportage on Covid-19 or exercising freedom of opinion and expression”, according to a 15 June report from the Rights and Risks Analysis Group.
In April, an FIR was filed against Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor of The Wire—without naming him—for wrongly attributing to UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath a quote on 31 March that “Lord Ram would protect devotees from the Coronavirus”, a reference to a Hindu religious fair that was later cancelled.
On 12 June, the Himachal Pradesh police filed an FIR against veteran journalist Vinod Dua, naming him in cases of sedition (124A), defamation (501), public nuisance (268) and “statements conducive to public mischief” (505). On 14 June, the Supreme Court protected Dua from arrest but refused to stay the case.
In April, journalists told Committee to Protect Journalists that violations of press freedom in Uttar Pradesh had increased since the Bharatiya Janata Party maintained its parliamentary majority during the 2019 general election.
On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted that “Media in India enjoy absolute freedom. We will expose, sooner than later, those surveys that tend to portray bad picture about ‘Freedom of Press’ in India."
In her story, Sharma wrote that Devi “literally went begging on the streets of Banaras”, that Devi’s mother had a ration card but she did not and did domestic chores to raise her children. Sharma wrote that Devi and her son lost “contractual work cleaning sewers” and “Rs 6,000 salary” due to the lockdown.
In the FIR, Mala Devi alleged that she told Sharma her family had no problems in getting food during the lockdown. Devi said she was a safai karamchari, a sweeper for the Varanasi Municipal Corporation, an outsourced job. Devi accused Sharma of lying and said she did not mop and sweep houses or wash utensils for a living or that she sometimes sustained herself on tea and roti.
Devi further suggested that Sharma has made fun of her poverty and caste in allegedly misreporting that her children and her slept hungry during the lockdown.
“Scroll stands by the article, which has been reported from the Prime Minister’s constituency,” said the Scroll.in its statement.
New York Times reporter Suhasini Raj tweeted that she had tried to contact Mala through the Investigating Officer (IO) (see image below).
Veteran journalist and researcher Pamela Philipose tweeted that the FIR was “absolutely condemnable and more evidence of the weaponisation of the police for political ends”.
Multimedia journalist Raksha Kumar, listed two instances of legal notices being sent to journalists in UP, three charged under various sections of the law and one jailed in Azamgarh from June 2019 to the present day.
(Arushi Thapar, a History graduate from Sophia College, Mumbai, is an intern with Article 14.)