New Delhi, October 8, 2019 — The government of India’s Telangana state must immediately release Ravi Prakash, founder of independent Telugu news website Tolivelugu, and ensure he is not harassed because of his work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Hyderabad police arrested Prakash on October 5 on allegations of corporate fraud during his term as CEO of broadcaster TV9, according to media reports. Prakash was forced to resign as CEO in May in the midst of a hostile corporate takeover, according to the reports. However, two of his colleagues told CPJ that his arrest is in retaliation for his refusal to withdraw two interviews on his news portal accusing the Telangana chief minister and a leading industrialist of corruption.
“Ravi Prakash is clearly being persecuted in retaliation for critical coverage on the Tolivelugu news website,” said Steven Butler, CPJ Asia program coordinator in Washington, D.C. “Authorities in Telangana should release him immediately.”
Tolivelugu reporter Raghu Ganji told CPJ that on September 30 the news website had carried two interviews on its YouTube channel conducted by him on the ongoing strike by 50,000 employees of a state-run transport corporation demanding pay hike and a freeze on the privatization of public transport. In one interview, transport union leader E Aswathama Reddy accused Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao and industrialist PV Krishna Reddy of being involved in a multi-million dollar public transport scam. In another interview, opposition leader Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka made allegations of corruption against Rao and Reddy relating to a huge irrigation project in Kaleshwaram, Telangana.
On October 2, another Tolivelugu reporter, Narsimha Reddy (no relation to Krishna Reddy), received a message over WhatsApp from an unknown number asking that the interview with Vikramarka be changed to a “private” setting on YouTube, in order to remove it from public view. According to Narsimha Reddy, an hour later he got a call from another unknown number asking him to take down both the interviews. “The caller first claimed that he was calling from [the] information and public relations department of the Telangana government. When I enquired further, he said he is calling from the office of Krishna Reddy. He told me to remove the interviews or face consequences,” Narsimha Reddy told CPJ.
Later that day around 10:30 pm, Krishna Reddy directly called Prakash demanding that he remove the interviews, according to Narsimha Reddy and Ganji. Prakash refused to do so.
Prakash previously accused the chief minister and the industrialist of forcing in August 2018 a takeover of TV9, in order to wrest editorial control of the broadcaster, which is a popular Telugu-language news channel in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states and which had long been critical of Rao, according to The News Minute. When Rao came to power in 2014, he pressured cable operators not to air TV9 and another channel in response to criticism of his party, as CPJ documented at the time. In August 2018, Reddy and another industrialist, who Prakash claims are proxies for the chief minister, bought a majority stake in TV9 and started pressuring him to change its editorial stance. Since April this year, the new owners have filed police complaints against Prakash accusing him of stopping the new directors from participating in management, forging signatures, and most recently, siphoning off money from company accounts. He resigned from the company in May and launched the new outlet, Tolivelugu.
Krishna Reddy did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment via WhatsApp sent to his personal assistant. Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment via WhatsApp message sent to his public relations officer.
CPJ has documented cases in Telugu-speaking Telangana and Andhra Pradesh where political parties have threatened, physically attacked, and even arrested journalists. In July this year, Mojo TV’s then-CEO, Revathi Pogadadanda, was arrested in Hyderabad. Earlier in February, her channel’s crew was attacked on the streets over its coverage of women’s admission to the Sabarimala temple and resulting protests. In May, newly elected chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Jaganmohan Reddy, openly threatened two news channels critical of him, according to news website Filter Kaapi.