New Delhi: On 10 February 2022, Zakir Ali Tyagi, an independent journalist in the Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh (UP), received a call from his family. Policemen were searching his house and had seized his laptop. There was no evidence of a warrant, and they had not tried to contact him.
“Police searched my house with no warrant, confiscated my computer,” Tyagi, 24, told Article 14. “They have not said why.”
Tyagi is no stranger to UP’s police. In 2017, the police filed a case of sedition against him for Facebook posts criticising chief minister Yogi Adityanath. In 2020, he was dragged out of his house in Aminabad village and arrested, accused of being involved in a case of cow slaughter.
He was beaten by a dozen policemen and arrested without cause, he told Article 14. At that time, police reportedly told the head of the gram panchayat (elected village council) that Tyagi was arrested under “political pressure”.
Subodh Saxena, station house officer (SHO) at the Pilkhuwa police station in Hapur district where the case was registered, said it was the state SOG (special operations group) that went to Tyagi’s house on a tip-off about the journalist’s brother in a “high-profile investigation”.
The SHO said they did not need a warrant because it was an ongoing investigation into a case of attempted murder. Asked if the police had informed the local magistrate of the special circumstances as per procedure, Saxena said he did not know.
According to the Pilkhuwa police, the SOG team mistook Tyagi’s computer for his brother’s. But the police did not leave any proof of seizure with the family for the seized device.
Tyagi’s experience with the police was not an isolated incident. Since 2017 when Adityanath became CM, 48 journalists have been physically attacked and 138 first information reports (FIRs) registered against others, according to a report by the Committee Against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ) released on 10 February 2022.
Since 2017, the report said, each one of UP’s 75 districts has recorded police cases against journalists.
The CAAJ’s report was corroborated by a Delhi-based think tank, Right and Risk Analysis Group India, in their Press Freedom 2022 report. In 2021, 23 UP journalists were targeted, said the report. UP is the second-most dangerous place in India for journalists, surpassed only by Kashmir (as Article 14 has reported here, here and here).
Journalists and journalism in India have been under attack since 2015, and the union government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pressured owners, had editors fired and established taboo areas. These attacks have risen sharply since 2020, with journalists facing terror and sedition cases even as Hindu fundamentalists issue rape and death threats against them, and discredit any narrative against official interests, we reported in February 2021.
According to the CAAJ report, over 80% of FIRs against journalists in UP were registered in 2020 and 2021.
An Atmosphere Of Fear
“Village and town journalists always live in the shadow of fear,” said Pawan Jaiswal, a former correspondent with Jansandesh Times, a media company based in Lucknow with multiple editions across the state. The 39-year-old journalist ran afoul of the Mirzapur police in 2019 when his story about children being served only rotis and salt in a government school went viral.
The meal was provided under the mid-day-meal scheme, recently renamed PM-Poshan, which covers all school children in classes one to eight in government and aided schools, about 118 million children, who are supposed to be served nutritious meals under the government’s flagship programme to address malnutrition.
Ten days after Jaiswal shared a video of school children in the village of Siur, 22 kilometres from Mirzapur, police registered a case against him under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, including 420 (fraud), 120A (conspiracy), 186 (obstructing a public officer in discharging his duty) and 193 (presenting false evidence). Discharged later for lack of evidence, he would have faced up to three years in jail had he been found guilty.
Rajkumar Pal, Jaiswal’s informant, the village headman’s representative, was not given a clean chit by police. He was still in jail in February 2022. Article 14’s calls to Mirzapur’s superintendent of police Ajay Kumar went unanswered.
When police raided his home around midnight on 31 August 2019, Jaiswal did not know there was an FIR against him. While his source was arrested, the journalist had been advised to go into hiding.
Jaiswal said neither he nor his informant knew a case had been registered against them. He first saw news of the FIR against him on social media.
It has been nearly a month since the police searched his house, but Tyagi has not returned home.
Even after the police handed his laptop to the village pradhan (chief of the elected village council) on 27 February 2022, he did not feel it was safe to return, though there was no indication of further police action.
“I don't trust the UP police at all,” he said. “One never knows when they'll come to pick me up.”
On Republic Day 2021, when Ismat Ara, a reporter with The Wire, reported a young protestor died during a police crackdown on a tractor parade by farmers, an FIR was registered against her and editor-in-chief Siddharth Varadarajan.
Ara was not arrested but said she remembered the UP police’s veiled threats. “A week after the FIR, suddenly the IO (investigating officer) called me and told me, 'tell your editor to come and give us his version or we will have to come to Delhi’,” recalled the 23-year-old. Article 14’s calls to the IO of the case, Kishan Avtar, went unanswered.
In September 2021, The Wire filed a plea with the Supreme Court to dismiss the FIRs against Ara and two other journalists. The bench directed it to approach the high court, while granting Ara and other accused protection from arrest until 1 December 2021.
The website filed a plea in the Allahabad high court seeking that the complaint be quashed. The case has not yet come up for hearing.
The High Price Of Reporting The Truth
At no point did the police or others find fault with Jaiswal’s report on the mid-day meal in the school in Siur, Mirzapur. His reportage led to several teachers being dismissed from service and a relook at the mid-day meal program in the district.
Mirzapur’s district magistrate (DM) Anuraj Patel justified the FIR against Jaiswal and his informant. He reportedly said the informer knew rotis were being served without vegetables. “Instead of arranging for the vegetables, the informer chose to call a journalist.” Patel said the journalist’s decision to shoot a video instead of a photograph was “suspicious.”
In June 2020, Jaiswal’s editor at Jansandesh Times, Vijay Vineet, was muscled out of his position of nine years shortly after reporting on the state of Musahars in UP, a severely marginalised Dalit community. His report, stating that in Varanasi the Musahars were reduced to eating grass for lack of food during the coronavirus lockdown, irked the administration.
The DM of Varanasi, Kaushal Raj Sharma, sent Jansandesh Times a notice claiming Vineet had misreported facts. “He said the Musahars were eating dal, not grass, and asked me to publish a correction,” the 54-year-old told Article 14.
Vineet doubled down on his story by having the grass analysed and producing proof of its nutritional deficiencies. His employers transferred him out of news reporting to the op-ed pages. Eventually, he was left with no choice but to resign, he said.
“If you write the truth, you are persecuted and if you write good things about the government you will go far,” he said. Truth-telling was being “disincentivized,” he added.
Hindi-language reporters were the worst hit in UP, according to Vineet. “Countless numbers of good journalists have lost their jobs over the past years,” he said.
Unknown Complainants, Opaque Procedures
The cases against Vineet and Jaiswal were not stand-alone cases.
In 2020, FIRs were registered against 32 journalists in UP, but the complainants were often unknown. In June 2020, when an FIR was registered against Scroll managing editor Supriya Sharma for her reports on the consequences of the lockdown in Varanasi, the complainant was a woman from the Dalit community who she had interviewed and remained untraceable when other journalists tried to interview her later.
In the 2020 cow slaughter case against Tyagi, the complainant is unknown. In the 2017 case of sedition, the complainant is the UP government.
The FIR registered against Ara and The Wire Editor-in-Chief Siddharth Varadarajan had different complainants for each accused. “Interestingly, the FIR against Siddharth was registered by a Hindu man and the one against me by a Muslim woman, even though they are the same FIR,” Ara said.
No Support, Employers Wary Of Those Fighting Back
Even after Vineet proved that his story on the state of Musahars in Varanasi was true, he was continually harassed. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took up Vijay’s case, accusing the UP government of selectively targeting journalists who wrote critical news reports about it.
The NHRC sent a notice to UP’s chief secretary on the complaint on 22 June 2020.
This should have been a win for the experienced journalist, but that was not the case. “In the Hindi media especially, if a reporter fights back for their rights or against harassment, they are considered dubious,” said Vineet. “It is almost impossible to get a job after that.”
Neha Dixit, an independent journalist who won the 2019 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, fought cases filed against her across the country for more than six years. “There is already a lot of labelling that is happening of journalists,” she said. “It becomes a problem because not every organisation wants to publish ground reports especially when you've been labelled.”
Smaller town journalists also suffered on account of their distance from journalists’ guilds and bodies that may mobilise public support against their harassment. Tyagi said that by the time media houses or journalists’ groups in Delhi find out that a journalist in UP has been arrested, “the damage is done”, even if help finally becomes available. “The journalist has already been in jail with the police,” he said.
Hindi language journalists said they could not even rely on colleagues.
“Now there is a line between journalists who ingratiate themselves to the government and those who do not,” said Anurag Saxena, head of Journalists Council in India, UP. The organisation tracks cases against journalists and helps them fight back. “Often we see journalists throwing colleagues to the dogs when they are in trouble.”
Journalists working for supportive media houses were the fortunate few, while independent and Hindi-language journalists faced the most trying circumstances.
Besides the expenses and absent institutional protection, there are serious risks when judicial communications are not received. Dixit found this out the hard way when an Assam court issued a warrant for her arrest for failure to answer a summons.
The summons had been sent to the office of her publisher, Outlook. “I didn't know about the summons till I heard on the news that there was a warrant against me,” said Dixit.
Procedure As Punishment
Long-winded trial procedures and judicial backlogs mean that once criminal cases are filed and chargesheeted, those accused “spend their entire lives in and out of court”, said Jaiswal, not to mention the expenses on bail, court fees and lawyers.
Tyagi said he had been to court in Meerut 10 times since June 2021. The police wanted to charge him under the ‘Goonda Act’, the colloquial term for the UP Control Of Goondas Act, 1970.
According to the police’s application to court, “Tyagi was a habitual criminal who instilled fear in the locals such that no one would testify against him.” The court had not yet taken up the police’s application, but Tyagi had to be sure he was present on each date.
The expenses are piling up. “In the first case, my bail was Rs 42,000, and next I spent Rs 30,000 on bail,” said Tyagi. This did not include the expenses on lawyers and court fees. “My family members have somehow managed to scrape together money for my bail—they take loans,” he said.
At the time he spoke to Article 14, Jaiswal was undergoing treatment for oral cancer. He was unsure how he would pay for the medical expenses. Proving his innocence and the facts of his mid-day meal report meant a good deal of running around, “in which lakhs of rupees were wasted”.
“I Trust The Law But Not The Police’
While journalists mostly accept that there are dangers associated with field reporting, those harassed by police said nothing could have prepared them for the threats against families and years of trauma.
Dixit repeatedly received threats rape and acid attack. In January 2021, there was an attempted break-in at her house in Delhi.
Tyagi refuses to stay with his family, for his safety and theirs, as the police continue to investigate his brother on unknown charges.
Vineet considered himself lucky that his children live outside UP, but was worried for his wife. “That is why I fought so hard, for my wife,” he said.
Tyagi said he no longer trusted the State. “I trust the law but not the police and courts,” he said.
As Republic Day 2022 approached, Ara had flashbacks that continued for days. “Two years back I thought the worst thing that could've happened to me was an FIR,” she said, adding that her definition of ‘worst’ had changed radically. “...now I know that there are worse things,” she said.
(Avantika Mehta is a Delhi-based journalist. She covers law, crime, gender and human rights violations for several national and international publications.)