Journalists condemn move in U.P. to muzzle the media

Published : April 12, 2020 22:02 IST

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adiyanath. Photo: PTI

In a display of solidarity and in defence of freedom of the press more than 200 journalists across the country issued a statement on April 11 condemning the muzzling of the media. The statement was issued in the context of two first information reports filed against Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder editor of The Wire, an online news portal, by the Uttar Pradesh Police.

On April 10, amid the nationwide lockdown in place since March 25, the Varadarajan family had unexpected visitors calling on them. According to a post shared by Varadarajan’s wife, Professor Nandini Sundar, who teaches in the University of Delhi, a team of seven or eight Uttar Pradesh Police personnel, along with one person in plainclothes, came to their home to serve a notice to The Wire’s Editor in connection with an FIR filed by the Ayodhya police. The notice asked Varadarajan to appear before the police on April 14. The FIR had been registered on April 1 following a complaint against The Wire for “spreading lies” against the Yogi Adityanath government.

Varadarajan had tweeted on March 31 from an article published in The Wire: “On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Adityanath insisted a large Ram Navami fair from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual and that Lord Ram would protect devotees from the Coronavirus.” The event was held on March 25, the very day the lockdown came into effect. What was not factual in the tweet was a quote wrongly attributed to the U.P Chief Minister, for which Varadarajan made amends the very next day, i.e. April 1: “I should clarify that it was Acharya Paramhans, Hindutva stalwart and head of the official Ayodhya Temple trust who said Ram would protect devotees from Coronavirus, and not Adityanath though he allowed a public event on 25/3 in defiance of the lockdown and took part himself.”

On April 1, the U.P. Chief Minister’s media adviser Mrityunjay Kumar tweeted with a warning to Varadarajan “not to spread lies” with reference to what had been tweeted. Varadarajan posted a clarification but stuck to the part which stated that the Chief Minister had attended a public function on the day the lockdown came into force. The media adviser warned Varadarajan to “immediately delete the tweet”, failing which the government would inquire into the matter (Karyavaahi kee jayegi tatha defamation ka case bhi lagaya jayega), take some action and even file a case for defamation. “You will ask for donations to fight for the case as well as for running the website,” tweeted the media adviser.

Soon enough, the FIR was filed under Sections 188 (disobedience to order) and 505 (2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) of the IPC by the officer in charge of the Faizabad police station. The media adviser tweeted, along with a copy of the FIR: “Despite our warning, he did not delete his lie nor ask an apology. We had promised action, the FIR has been filed and the matter is being inquired into. If you are still thinking of spreading lies against the Yogi government, kindly remove such thoughts from your mind.”

A second FIR was also registered by the police for offences under the 66 D of the IT Act at Ayodhya, following a complaint by a resident, referring to which Mrityunjay Kumar again tweeted that he hoped that Varadarajan would have enough donations to fight two cases. Both FIRs, the first by the police and the second by the resident, were filed on April 1 in Faizabad under Sections 188 and 505 of the IPC. The Founding Editors of The Wire issued a statement that the FIRs were politically motivated.

The statement by senior journalists held that the registering of the FIRs was a “brazen attempt to muzzle the media”. The statement pointed out that the Chief Minister’s presence on March 25 was a matter of public record and knowledge and that The Wire had retracted the statement it had wrongly attributed to the Chief Minister.

“The manner in which the U.P government and its police have been pursuing this with a single-minded agenda smacks of vindictiveness. The state has an extra responsibility to exercise restraint on use of its powers when citizens are restricted in exercising many of their usual democratic rights. Freedom of the press is doubly important in such a context as people cannot make news themselves but independent media is the most important medium of expressing their concerns. We demand that such politically motivated harassment of mediapersons should stop immediately,” read the statement by more than 200 journalists.

In fact, the government at the Centre has been very cagey about the media’s reporting on the pandemic. It was not long back that the government had sought directions from the Supreme Court to restrain the media from spreading “fake news” in the wake of the panic created by the pandemic and the exodus by migrant workers.

Meanwhile, the Editors Guild of India expressed concern over two things; one the intervention by the government in the Supreme Court seeking directions to restrain the media in the wake of the mass movement of migrants which, according to the government, had been triggered by panic created by the media, and second, the registering of the FIRs against The Wire’s editor. While the court did not heed the pleadings of the government, it directed the media to publish the “official version of developments” pertaining to the epidemic. The Guild stated that while it had utmost respect for the judiciary, such advice to publish the official version of developments was “gratuitous and unnecessary”. On the registering of the FIRs, the Guild stated that it was a case of “overreaction” and an act of “intimidation”. The Delhi Union of Journalists also issued a statement condemning the overreach by the U.P administration.