Journalist arrest another sign of deteriorating climate for press in Chhattisgarh

New York, March 22, 2016–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh to immediately release Prabhat Singh, a reporter for the Hindi daily Patrika, who was arrested in the south Bastar region Monday, and to investigate a claim that he was mistreated in custody. Singh’s arrest comes as two journalists were forced to flee the region, and two others have been jailed for months.

Singh was arrested under Section 67 of India’s Information Technology Act in response to a complaint that he circulated “confrontational material” on the messaging service, WhatsApp, according to independent news website Scroll. A court today ordered Singh to be held in custody until March 30, according to news reports.

Singh also faces charges from several cases police have filed against him in recent months, accusing him of forgery and cheating, according to news reports. Singh has denied the previous allegations and said the cases were in reprisal for his critical reporting, reports said.

“We call on Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh to ensure the immediate release of Prabhat Singh,” said CPJ’s Asia program senior research associate, Sumit Galhotra. “The arrests and hounding of journalists and their defenders has given way to a climate of fear that risks turning parts of Chhattisgarh into a media black hole.”

Singh, who has worked for Patrika for more than three years, reports on sensitive stories including an attack last month on human rights activist Soni Sori and alleged extrajudicial killings in the state, news reports said. He also raised critical questions of high-ranking police officers in news conferences, according to the Hindustan Times.

Vishnu Singh, the journalist’s brother, told CPJ that Singh told him he had been beaten in police custody. He said that when he saw his brother today, the journalist had bruises on his hands and chest area. Vishnu Singh added that his brother told him he had been deprived of food in custody. CPJ tried several phone numbers listed in the police directory to seek police comment but no one answered.

Singh’s colleagues told Scroll that men in plainclothes, whom they recognized as police, took the journalist from the paper’s office in Dantewada district Monday evening. Colleagues searched for him, but Singh’s whereabouts were not known until his court appearance today, the Hindustan Times reported.

In the complaint that led to Singh’s arrest, a journalist at the privately owned news channel ETV accused him of posting confrontational comments in a WhatsApp group used by many journalists to share news, according to Scroll. The complaint alleged that Singh was critical of those who opposed legislation to safeguard journalists in the state–a call that has been growing amid the deteriorating situation for the press in Chhattisgarh. Singh worked briefly as a stringer for ETV but his contract was terminated, with no reason given, on March 19, according to reports.

Earlier this month, Singh filed a complaint with Dantewada police against Samajik Ekta Manch, a group of activists that has previously harassed journalists, for labeling him an “anti-national” on WhatsApp, according to reports.

Journalists and lawyers told CPJ during a visit to Chhattisgarh this month that there is a sustained campaign to silence critical reporting in parts of the state. The region has been the scene of a decades-long conflict between the security forces and Maoists. CPJ documented how BBC Hindi Service reporter Alok Prakash Putul and freelancer Malini Subramaniam were forced to flee Bastar last month over concern for their safety. Subramaniam had been harassed by members of Samajik Ekta Manch. The lawyers of a legal aid clinic representing imprisoned journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav, whom Chhattisgarh police arrested in 2015 on unsubstantiated allegations that they were aligned with Maoists, were also forced to leave the area. Both Nag and Yadav remain behind bars.

Police and members of Samajik Ekta Manch are part of the same WhatsApp group used by journalists, according to local journalists. In December, police allegedly circulated cartoons on social media and messaging platforms linking journalists to Maoists, according to local reports. Police have not publicly commented on the allegations.

CPJ sent a letter to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh on January 19, asking him to ensure a safer working environment for journalists in the state. The minister has not responded.