Media directors arrested over Jainism articles

New York, January 8, 2009–B.V. Seetaram and his wife, Rohini, who head the media group Chithra Publications in Karnataka state, southern India, have been in judicial custody since Sunday in connection with two-year old criminal charges relating to their newspapers, according to local news reports.

State police arrested Seetaram, chairman and chief editor of the group, and his wife, the director, while the couple were traveling in the state’s Udipi district, the reports said. Police told Seetaram the arrest was in connection with criminal charges lodged against them in 2007 for offending the sensibilities of a religious group in articles published by two of Chithra’s Kannada-language dailies, Karavali Ale and Kannada Janantaranga. Seetaram told local reporters that the arrest follows a recent campaign of harassment against Karavali Ale, which is published from the nearby district of Mangalore, according to the reports.

“We are concerned that the arrest of these media owners, which coincides with attacks against one of their newspapers, is part of a campaign of harassment because they have dared to take on a sensitive religious issue,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator. “We call on authorities to drop these criminal charges and ensure the safety of our colleagues.”

The original complaint was filed in March 2007 by a practitioner of the religion Jainism, shortly after the newspapers published articles questioning the right of Jain leaders to appear naked in public, according to national English-language daily The Statesman. The couple spent a total of 10 days in jail in 2007 before being freed on bail. Seetaram characterized those arrests as harassment, and said that Karavali Ale had exposed links between the Jain community, a bus company allegedly carrying out illegal activities, and local police, The Statesman report said.

The reason for the two-year delay in the re-emergence of the charge was not clear from published reports. But attacks against Karavali Ale escalated in late 2008. In December, Seetaram lodged a complaint with the Press Council of India, a New Delhi-based watchdog body, saying that groups were commandeering quantities of the newspaper from vendors and then burning the copies. Its printing press was also attacked in November, according to local news reports. The reports quoted Seetaram saying local Hindu nationalist groups with the support of the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government were targeting the paper in retaliation for articles criticizing their activities.

Local journalists have protested heavy-handed official treatment of the media chief. In March 2007, police arrested the couple in their home at midnight without proper paperwork, according to The Statesman. After Sunday’s arrest (which one report said involved 25 police officers), handcuffs and chains were used to restrain Seetaram when he was produced in an Udipi court on Monday, an unusually high security measure, local newspapers reported. Seetaram refused bail during that session, saying he feared re-arrest on similar charges if he returned to Mangalore, according to The Hindu newspaper. He and his wife have been remanded until January 17.

Tensions between religious groups run high in Mangalore, and newspapers are often accused of contributing to communal disharmony with provocative or one-sided coverage, according to the popular current affairs blog Churumuri. Two individuals registered complaints with local police against Vijaya Karnataka, another Kannada-language newspaper owned by the Times of India Group, in December 2008 and January 2009, for separate articles said to incite hatred against Christians in the wake of mob violence by Hindu groups which targeted churches in the state in September 2008, according to the blog and local news reports.