Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Bhagel meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on June 15, 2019. CPJ called on Bhagel to ensure that police drop charges against journalist Dilip Sharma. (Photo via Indian prime minister's official website)

Journalist facing incitement charges for reporting on alleged power blackouts in central India

June 19, 2019 3:15 PM ET

New Delhi, June 19, 2019 -- Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel should immediately intervene to ensure that police drop charges against journalist Dilip Sharma and direct officials in his state to respect press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 14, police in Chhattisgarh, in central India, arrested Sharma, editor of privately owned Hindi-language news website Webmorcha, over a complaint lodged by a local electricity department official, according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke with CPJ via phone.

Police detained Sharma for 11 hours, charged him with publishing a report that incited "fear or alarm to the public," and released him on a bail of 10,000 rupees ($145), according to Sharma and a report by the Press Trust of India news agency. Under the Indian Penal Code, he could face imprisonment of up to three years if convicted.

"Chhattisgarh authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalist Dilip Sharma," said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ's program director, in New York. "Chief Minister Baghel should uphold his promise to ensure journalists' rights and safety, not continue the previous government's trend of targeting journalists."

Sharma told CPJ that four police officers raided his home in the early hours of June 14, got him out of bed, and brought him to the local police station. The arrest was sparked by a complaint filed against Sharma by an electricity department official, who alleged that Sharma's reporting that villages in Chhattisgarh were recently without power for 48 hours, which officials say did not occur, was "false and misleading," according to the Press Trust of India.

Sharma told CPJ that he stands by his reporting, and said that high-ranking local officials have spoken publicly about the blackouts.

CPJ called Chief Minister Baghel's press office and the Chhattisgarh Commissioner of Public Relations, but representatives from each office declined to comment about the case on the record.

Baghel was elected at the end of 2018; during his campaign, he promised to improve journalist safety, and in office he has instituted a commission that is looking into legal cases filed against journalists under the previous state government, according to CPJ research.

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