Police in India must drop charges against Tehelka reporter

New York, February 7, 2011–Authorities in Karnataka state should drop charges against Tehelka magazine correspondent K.K. Shahina that appear intended to discredit her reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police visited her residence in Kerala state twice in January and left notices for her to appear for questioning, leading her to fear she will be taken into custody, she told CPJ by e-mail

In late 2010, Karnataka police charged her under the penal code with two counts of criminal intimidation of witnesses in connection with sources she interviewed in Kodagu district, Shahina said. She learned of the charges the day after the online publication of her article criticizing a police investigation into the arrest of a suspect in relation to a 2008 bomb attack. She faces up to seven years in prison on those charges, she told CPJ. Police added a third charge under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a counterterrorism law, according to Shahina and local news reports. The law’s vague definition of terrorism and heavy penalties leave it open to abuse, and it allows courts to detain suspects without bail, according to an analysis by Human Rights Watch.

The Karnataka High Court is considering Shahina’s appeal for anticipatory bail in the case, she said. But Shahina told CPJ that she could be detained at any time, potentially without being granted bail.

Local journalists believe the charges are intended to discredit Shahina’s reporting, according to The Hindu daily and Indian weekly Outlook India. Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka, told CPJ that she had notified police of Shahina’s identity and assignment while the journalist was in Karnataka. “I told them not once but twice that she was a bona fide journalist doing a routine story,” she told CPJ by telephone. “They ludicrously asked if she was a terrorist.”

“Karnataka police must immediately withdraw their charges against Shahina K.K.,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “The use of anti-terrorism laws against a journalist on assignment who writes critically about police activities is deeply concerning.”

Tehelka, a New-Delhi-based newsweekly, published the article “Why is this man still in prison?” in the December 4, 2010, issue of the magazine, which appeared on the Internet on November 25, Shahina told CPJ. The article alleges that Karnataka police fabricated testimony from witnesses to justify the arrest of suspect Abdul Nasar Madani. One witness said police tortured and threatened him, according to the article.

“My story demolishes the entire case they cooked up against Abdul Nasar Madani. They might have done it [in] defense,” she told CPJ. Police tailed her and accused her of terrorism while she was reporting, according to an account posted with her original Tehelka article.

 “There are strong indications that the Karnataka police action was prompted by the fact that Shahina is a Muslim and had attempted an investigation [about] Abdul Nasser Madani, another Muslim,” The Hoot media watchdog website wrote.

CPJ and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are supporting Tehelkas reporting on press freedom issues in India.