A couple dozen activists gathered this past week in New York City’s Union Square to protest the imprisonment of freelance journalist Lingaram Kodopi and his aunt Soni Sori, who were arrested one year ago in India.
According to local human rights activists and journalists, authorities wanted to prevent Kodopi from publicizing the role of police in violence in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where security forces and Maoists are at war. In April 2011, the 26-year-old journalist documented the destruction of houses during an anti-Maoist police operation in three Dantewada district villages and “recorded on video precise narrations of police atrocities,” Tehelka reported. Kodopi was charged with anti-state activities under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act and sections 121, 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code for criminal conspiracy, sedition, and waging war against the state.
The New York protest was organized by the Association for India’s Development and the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, and endorsed by groups like Amnesty International USA. Demonstrators gathered near a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
Prachi Patankar, a member of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, told CPJ, “While based here we can internationalize the issue. Journalists–not just in India–but elsewhere face similar challenges from their governments.” The event has sparked a sense of curiosity, she said.
Activists noted that Kodopi and his aunt have been tortured in prison. According to Telheka, Kodopi was beaten and held in a police toilet for 40 days. According to Human Rights Watch, Sori has been sexually assaulted and beaten. The government has failed to take action against those responsible for their torture, and the two remain in custody awaiting trial.
“It’s a very dangerous climate,” prominent Indian activist Himanshu Kumar told CPJ at the protest. “Journalists can’t report the truth. And if they dare to report on the reality, the government accuses them of being a Maoist and gives them a hard time, and even imprisons them.” Only the journalists who report the government version can survive, Kumar said.
This is certainly not the first time that authorities in India have targeted the press for shedding light on human rights abuses. In January 2011, police arrested journalist Sudhir Dhawale, who documented human rights violations for the Marathi-language monthly Vidrohi. Like Kodopi, he was charged with sedition and waging war against the state and was also charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Dhawale’s supporters say he was detained because he was a critic of a state-supported, anti-Maoist militia active in Chhattisgarh state, a center of the violence between Maoists and the state. Dhawale remains imprisoned, according to media reports.
More recently, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition for his cartoons criticizing government corruption. If convicted, he could face life in prison.