Indian reporter who exposed assault faces new litigation

Indian journalist Naveen Soorinje continues to languish in prison despite last week’s decision by the Karnataka state cabinet to withdraw charges against him. New developments this week are challenging his release. And his continued imprisonment raises a larger question about the role of journalists at the occurrence of a crime.

Since the cabinet dropped charges, Karnataka chief minister Jagadish Shettar has still not signed the order for Soorinje’s release. Now, on Wednesday, the High Court served notice to 28-year-old Soorinje and the state government that a Bangalore-based lawyer, N.P. Amrutesh, filed public-interest litigation in the Karnataka High Court challenging the January 31 decision to drop charges, media reports said. Amrutesh alleged that Soorinje was a participant in the July attack on young men and women at a party in Mangalore and that the government withdrew charges “without applying its mind,” according to local reports.

“The situation is increasingly uncertain and nothing is very clear,” Soorinje’s lawyer, R. Nitin, told CPJ by phone. The court says it will hear the case and decide whether to reverse the cabinet decision to withdraw charges, he said. A date for a hearing was not provided, according to Nitin. Meanwhile, Soorinje remains in legal limbo.

At the heart of Soorinje’s case is the question: What is the role of a journalist? Journalists, by the very nature of their work, bear witness to wrongs. But the Indian government has blurred the boundary between bearing witness and committing a crime. Furthermore, the government is apparently turning a blind eye to what local journalists say is Soorinje’s track record of reporting with integrity and courage on previous episodes of violence by Hindu right-wing groups.

Soorinje’s footage was used to identify dozens of attackers. Months later, Soorinje was arrested by police under more than a dozen charges, including assault, rioting with a deadly weapon, and using criminal force on women with the intention of outraging their modesty, according to local and international news reports.

Soorinje says his calls to the police during the attack went unanswered and he had no choice but to cover the episode. The only thing that is mindless here is that a journalist who reported an assault is still locked up for doing so.