New Delhi, April 24, 2020 — Authorities in India’s Tamil Nadu state must immediately release journalist Andrew Sam Raja Pandian and drop their investigation into his outlet’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Police arrested Pandian, founder and chief executive of the SimpliCity news portal, yesterday in the city of Coimbatore, and accused him of violating the Epidemic Diseases Act and two sections of the penal code, according to news reports and Tamil Nadu-based journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, editor of news website The Lede, who is familiar with the case and spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
The arrest was sparked by a report published on SimpliCity on April 18, which alleged government corruption in food distribution efforts related to the pandemic, according to a complaint against Pandian filed by police, which CPJ reviewed.
The police complaint, which CPJ reviewed, accuses Pandian of violating Sections 188 and 505 (1) of the Indian penal code, for disobeying the orders of a public servant and inciting public mischief, respectively, and of violating Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act for disobeying regulations during a pandemic.
If charged and convicted, he could face up to three months in prison for violating the Epidemic Diseases Act, and up to three years for the penal code violations, according to those laws.
“Indian authorities should not misuse laws meant to fight a pandemic in order to silence critical reporting,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia correspondent, in New York. “Authorities in Tamil Nadu should immediately release journalist Andrew Sam Raja Pandian and drop their investigation into his outlet’s work.”
The complaint alleges that SimpliCity and Pandian “attempted to bring a bad name to the state government, created unrest among government officials and through this tried to gain popularity for the site.”
Ravishankar told CPJ that the police had detained two journalists from SimpliCity earlier in the day, but after pressure from the local journalist community, released them after about five hours, and then arrested Pandian.
Coimbatore District Collector K. Rajamani and Commissioner of Police Sumit Sharan did not respond to text messages from CPJ requesting comment.