New Delhi/Lucknow: Ismat Ara, 23, a journalist with The Wire, covers the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) under the ever-present threat of arrest. “As long as the first information report (FIR) is there, the police can arrest me any time they wish to,” said Ara, who bears that possibility in mind every time she travels there.
The FIR was filed on 1 February 2021 at the Civil Lines police station of Rampur district in UP after Ara reported the claims of the family of a Sikh farmer who died during a tractor march to Red Fort in New Delhi on Republic Day. She and three other journalists were granted protection from arrest for two months by the Supreme Court on 8 September 2021.
The family said the young farmer had died of a bullet injury when the police fired at protesting farmers. The Delhi police said he died from injuries sustained when his tractor overturned.
Ara’s report reflected the family’s claims as well as the police’s version of events, but she was charged with spreading fake news under two sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860—153-B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505(2) (statements conducing to public mischief).
The Rampur police’s FIR originally named Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Wire, who had tweeted Ara’s story.
On 8 September, responding to a petition to quash three FIRs against The Wire’s reporters (for Ara’s report and two other cases), the SC directed the petitioners to approach the Allahabad high court, while granting a two-month reprieve. “We are aware of fundamental rights and don't want freedom of press to be muzzled,” Justice L Nageswara Rao said.
On 26 October, the Allahabad HC granted Varadarajan and Ara protection from arrest until the next hearing on 24 November. The bench also sought a counter-affidavit, within three weeks, from the UP administration.
Meanwhile, on 7 September, the Indirapuram police station of Ghaziabad district in western UP had filed a criminal case against journalist Rana Ayyub, based on allegations that she misappropriated funds received online as donations for Covid relief work through crowdfunding platform Ketto. It was the second FIR against Ayyub in four months in UP.
Earlier in June 2021, Ayyub was named in an FIR filed by police in Ghaziabad alongside journalists Mohammed Zubair of Alt News, writer Saba Naqvi, The Wire, Twitter and three Congress politicians, Salman Nizami, Shama Mohamed and Maskoor Usmani, for posting tweets on an attack on an elderly Muslim man.
Under chief minister Yogi Adityanath of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), cases against journalists have spiked in UP since he assumed office in 2017.
Of 29 cases against journalists in the state between 2010 and 2020 that were studied by independent journalist Geeta Seshu for the Free Speech Collective, 27 were filed between 2017 and 2020 alone. In Seshu’s pan-India study of cases against journalists, UP led the tally.
We tracked 12 cases since August 2019, all filed against journalists for reports critical of the state government. The cases had a wide-ranging impact on the journalists, from their health to their ability to continue working.
A month into the Covid-19 pandemic, journalists in UP told the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global non-profit that works to promote press freedom worldwide, that they felt under increased threat of criminal charges and physical assault. Just months later, the Editors Guild Of India wrote to the chief minister: Criminalising journalists for accurate, fact-based reportage had led to a choking of space for an independent press in UP, they said.
“Far too many reporters in Uttar Pradesh have been subjected to such harassment,” Supriya Sharma, executive editor of Scroll.in, told Article 14.
In June 2020, an FIR was filed against Sharma by the Varanasi police under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and under sections 501 (printing defamatory matter) and 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) of the IPC.
Behind Complainant, Hidden Hand Of Police
The criminal case against Sharma was based on her story that narrated the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown in Varanasi district, the prime minister’s constituency. A woman Sharma interviewed reportedly complained to the police, later alleging that her comments had been misrepresented.
“Siddique Kappan has been in jail for more than a year. Compared to that, I haven’t faced any major trouble,” said Sharma, who was granted protection from arrest by the Allahabad high court.
Sharma refuted the woman’s allegations. “I have an audio recording of the interview that shows this is a bogus allegation. I had quoted her verbatim in our story,” said Sharma. Reporters found later that the family had been told about Sharma’s report by a local policeman, revealing, in Sharma’s words, “the hidden hand of the police” in the case against her.
Sharma said the case led to anxiety for her family, but acknowledged her “enormous privilege” on account of organisational backing and working in the English-language media.
Malayalam journalist Kappan, with a reporting career spanning a decade, got no reprieve since his arrest on 5 October 2020 near Mathura when he was on his way to Hathras, to report on the case of a Dalit teen gangraped and murdered. Arrested alongside two activists he was travelling with, Kappan was charged with plans to breach the peace in Hathras by creating a “caste divide”.
The police later invoked three sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, against them.
In November 2020, the UP government challenged Kappan’s habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court, and argued that he was not a journalist but had merely “posed” as one by using an old identity card of a defunct newspaper.
An affidavit filed by the police called him a functionary of Islamic organisation Popular Front of India (PFI). The Centre in April 2021 told the apex court it was in the process of banning the PFI, accused of radicalising a section of Kerala’s Muslim youth, a charge the group denied.
The police chargesheet filed in April 2021 said Kappan was indeed a journalist. Citing his reports on the Nizamuddin Markaz event, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, the Ram temple in Ayodhya and student activist Sharjeel Imam, it called his reporting communal.
“Kappan only and only reports to incite Muslims, which is a hidden agenda of PFI [Popular Front of India]. Some stories were written to sympathise with Maoists and Communists,” the chargesheet said.
The breach of peace case was dropped after police failed to file a chargesheet within the stipulated six-month period, but Kappan and his two co-accused remain in jail under UAPA.
Journalist and media researcher Seshu told Article 14 that Kappan’s continued incarceration was “shameful”.
She said other states’ may also show poor institutional responses to attacks on journalism, but UP is ”vicious”, she said. “There is a very clear message the government is putting out that it will not accept any kind of dissenting voices including journalists and activists.”
The Wire: A Frequent Target
In April 2020, cases were filed against The Wire editor Varadarajan at two police stations—City Kotwali in Lucknow and Ayodhya Kotwali—over remarks critical of Adityanath.
In a tweet, he had allegedly falsely attributed to the chief minister a quote stating that the deity Ram would protect devotees from Covid-19. The two FIRs were later merged into one case at Ayodhya Kotwali police station.
An Ayodhya police team visited Varadarajan’s home in New Delhi and served a notice asking him to appear on 14 April. The police later agreed to record his statement through email in view of the lockdown.
In June 2021, the UP police once again filed criminal cases against the The Wire, two of its journalists, Siraj Ali and Mukul S Chauhan, and two others, Mohammad Anees and Mohammad Naeem, residents of Barabanki, over a video report on the demolition of a mosque in the town, 30 km to the east of Lucknow. The mosque was an unauthorised structure, the police said, accusing The Wire of “a malicious attempt to spoil communal amity”.
“I don’t know if the Yogi government is deliberately targeting The Wire,” Varadarajan told Article 14. “But the fact is that in the last year and half, a total of five FIRs have been filed against us invoking quite serious criminal charges, all because of stories we have done or tweets we have posted.”
Varadarajan termed the charges “all baseless”, invoked to “intimidate us”. The organisation had no intention of slowing down their ground reporting in UP, the editor said. “We are very clear at The Wire that we are going to fight these cases.” On 26 October 2021, the Allahabad High Court renewed for two more months the protection from arrest for Ara and Varadarajan.
‘Anti-Government’: Video On Salt-Roti Midday Meal
In August 2019, a reporter with Varanasi-based Hindi daily Jansandesh Times posted a video on social media showing school children being served salt and dry rotis in a government school in UP’s Mirzapur district.
The meal was provided under the mid-day-meal scheme, recently renamed PM-Poshan, which covers all school children in Classes 1 to 8 in government and aided schools, about 118 million children who are served nutritious meals under the flagship programme to tackle malnutrition.
As the national media picked up the story, the state government responded by filing a case against the reporter Pawan Jaiswal and three others, alleging that the story was false.
The administration conducted an investigation, and suspended the school principal and the entire staff.
On 2 September 2019, following a complaint by a block officer, the police filed a case against Jaiswal and a village pradhan, an elected representative, Raj Kumar Pal, for allegedly defaming the government. The charges were serious—criminal conspiracy, obstructing a public servant in discharge of his functions, concocting false evidence, and cheating.
Mirzapur district magistrate Anurag Patel claimed the case was registered because despite being a print journalist, Jaiswal had chosen to film a video, allegedly in order to make it viral. “That is why we feel that he is part of a conspiracy,” Patel said. Deputy chief minister Dinesh Sharma said those trying to defame the government should be punished.
Police raided the homes of Jaiswal and Kumar. Jaiswal was not at home but Kumar was detained. The following day, Jaiswal addressed a press conference denouncing the police action. Kumar was released after 18 days in custody.
In September 2019, the Press Council of India (PCI) sent a team to Mirzapur in December, questioning the superintendent of police and the district magistrate, and were informed that a chargesheet had not been filed.
For Covid Relief Fund-Raiser, Money Laundering Case
In the case against Ayyub, the Ghaziabad police invoked IPC sections 403 (dishonest misappropriation of property), 406 (criminal breach of trust), 418 (cheating with knowledge that wrongful loss may ensue to person), and 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property). The FIR also applied section 66D of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, and section 4 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.
The complainant, Vikas Sankrityayan, who runs a right-wing Twitter handle @HinduITCell, is not an aggrieved party. Speaking to Article 14 over the phone, he said he came across an email from crowd-funding site Ketto to donors stating that “law enforcement agencies” were looking into the balance funds in Ayyub’s campaign, and taxes payable on the money raised.
Sankrityayan claimed Ayyub’s campaign violated the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 or FCRA. He alleged that Ayyub did not direct the money towards the relief work she had raised funds for. “I registered the FIR because I could not see something wrong happening,” he told Article 14.
Rejecting the charges against her, Ayyub’s lawyer Rizwan Khan said the FIR made allegations without evidence. He said Ayyub has “documentary evidence” of the sums raised for and spent on her relief work.
The money left over was not misappropriated, he told Article 14. “Whenever Ketto demands, she will release the money.” He said the Ghaziabad police would close the case once Ayyub’s evidence was presented.
“The complaint and the case are nothing but an attempt to harass her,” Khan said.
In a statement issued on 12 September, Ayyub called the FIR “malicious and baseless”. Donations received through Ketto are accounted for, and she had paid the tax levied on the donations, she said, adding, “The receipt of donations did not violate any law.”
Investigation officer Abhay Mishra of the Indirapuram police station in Ghaziabad told Article 14 the investigation was progressing "carefully" as it involved financial transactions. He declined further comment.
FIR Based On Complaint By Officer Named In Scam
After Lucknow-based journalists Vishwa Gaurav and Ashish Sumit Mishra of the Navbharat Times reported an alleged scam in weighing foodgrain to be supplied through the Public Distribution System, they found an FIR had been registered against them at the Talkatora police station in Lucknow on 12 September 2021.
According to Gaurav, the police filed a case after a complaint by an officer who had a major role in the scam. “It is surprising how rapidly the police case against me and my reporter was lodged," said Gaurav. "Usually it takes three to four days to get an FIR registered in Uttar Pradesh but in our case we were booked soon after we were threatened by the officer on 12 September 2021.”
‘Three Cases, Not A Single Court Hearing’
Former freelance reporter Prashant Kanojia, 27, now associated with Rashtriya Lok Dal, faces three cases in Lucknow.
The first, lodged in June 2019 at Hazratganj police station, accused him of “propagating defamatory content” against Adityanath. He had tweeted a video depicting a woman making some claims about the chief minister. The police filed an FIR under sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 500 (defamation) of the IPC, and section 67 of the IT Act (electronically publishing obscene material).
Another case filed in April 2020 at Ashiana police station in Lucknow accused him of making objectionable remarks about prime minister Narendra Modi and Adityanath on social media. The case was filed following a complaint by local BJP leader Shashank Shekhar Singh who called Kanojis’s comments “communal”. Again, Kanojia was charged with defamation, with sections of the IT Act also applied.
In August 2020, the Hazratganj police station filed another case against Kanojia, who was this time kept in custody for more than two months before being granted bail. The complaint was filed by sub-inspector Dinesh Kumar Shukla who alleged that Kanojia had posted a tweet about the Hindu Army with a morphed image and intention to malign Sushil Tiwari, the organisation’s leader.
The Hindu Army, formed in 2019, has repeatedly committed hate crimes against Muslims. Tiwari was arrested in August in the Jantar Mantar hate speech case in which a crowd of men shouted slogans calling for violence against Muslims.
“There has been not even a single hearing in any of the cases so far. The police have not filed chargesheets yet,” said Kanojia. He said the police knew there is no merit in the cases.
Kanojia quit journalism and entered active politics, joining the RLD, a party with a bastion in western UP.
Kanojia said the scope for journalism in India has waned. “You can do journalism in an independent organisation or write independently but it is difficult to sustain and make a career that way," he said.
A Chilling Effect, Impact On Health And Work
Journalists staring at long legal battles filed by or at the behest of the UP administration said FIRs for critical reportage have become the norm under the current government.
“It hardly makes news now,” said Jaiswal, the Jansandesh Times reporter in Mirzapur.
According to him, the atmosphere of fear is targeted at independent journalists and smaller news organisations. “They have already bought over the big media through advertisements,” said Jaiswal. The cases are meant to break the will of independent journalism, he said.
Lucknow-based Sharat Pradhan, a veteran journalist, told Article 14 the current situation reminded him of the Emergency during which he was a cub reporter. “…it is the same condition or worse,” said Pradhan, who held Adityanath directly responsible for the attacks on the free press.
“The police are doing it on the directions of chief minister Adityanath who is intolerant of any kind of dissent or critical journalism,” Pradhan said.
Ayyub said the past four months had been “traumatic”, according to a profile of her in Time magazine published on 22 October.
Ayyub recounted being hospitalised for a suspected heart attack, finally diagnosed as palpitations. “It happened because I was fearful of my life,” Ayyub told Time. “I was just tired of this existence.”
Ayyub is being investigated by the income tax department, the Enforcement Directorate and police stations. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media watchdog, said Ayyub was “one of the top concerns” for them.
Ayyub said in her statement in September that she would not allow “hate” “propaganda” and “bullying tactics” to stop her from pursuing journalism or relief work.
Pradhan said, however, that the cases have had a chilling effect on journalism in the state.
“You will see most newspapers here are busy praising Yogi," said Pradhan. "I have heard reporters and editors telling me they can’t write a word against the government.” He said some are given large government advertising contracts, and others are intimidated.
Jaiswal faced “all kinds of problems” in his professional life since the case was filed. BJP supporters threatened him for writing reports and social media posts critical of the government. “They threatened that they would send me to jail for anti-government activities.”
In December 2019, Jaiswal was asked by station house officer of Ahraura police station Rajesh Chaubey to leave a press conference being addressed by minister Sidharth Nath Singh. “He told me they have got nothing written (clearance) on me, so I should leave the personal event,” said Jaiswal.
When he covered hunger in Mirzapur during the Covid-19 lockdown, he was issued a warning: “Tum sudhroge nahi,” a government official told him when he called for their comment, he said. “You will not mend your ways.”
Asked if he has toned down his style of reportage, Jaiswal said: “Woh kaunsa journalism ho jis mein kisi ki chaplusi karna pade? (What kind of journalism would it be to flatter someone?) I cannot do that.”
Jaiswal acknowledged, however, the looming fear since the case, especially when he reported on crime and corruption in Mirzapur, a subject fraught with the risk of retaliation. “I take extra precaution to ensure that I and my family stay safe,” he said.
For Gaurav and his team at the Lucknow bureau of the Navbharat Times, the case was demoralising. “I can see fear of police action lurking in the minds of my reporters,” said Gaurav.
When Kanojia, the reporter-turned-politician, was sent to jail, his wife was diagnosed with depression. “She is still seeking medical help,” he said. The cases and their impact on his family that made him quit journalism, he said. He said an FIR was recently registered against him in Varanasi for a statement criticising the BJP, but he was not arrested.
“If I were a journalist,” said Kanojia, "I would have been in jail."
‘Kashmirification Of The Rest Of India’
Varadarajan, editor of The Wire, cited an article by columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta published on 6 August 2019 in The Indian Express, written after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
“He said that the argument that Kashmir is going to be integrated with the rest of India is nonsense,” said Varadarajan. “Instead what we are going to see is the Kashmirification of the rest of India, meaning the kind of human rights violations which people of Kashmir have been subjected to for years is now going to become the template for people across India.”
Varadarajan said that this appeared to have come true in the case of Uttar Pradesh where journalists, students, activists and social media users have been slapped with serious charges including sedition.
Seshu alleged there was a “vendetta” against independent-minded journalists. “There is a very clear message to crack down on journalism and it comes from the top,” she said.
Journalists continue to report and write, but it is more difficult than ever. “It becomes more and more difficult to collect information,” she said, “and put out independent news critical of the government.”
(Zafar Aafaq is a journalist based in New Delhi. Saurabh Sharma is a journalist based in Lucknow)