New Delhi, April 2, 2020—Police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh should immediately withdraw criminal complaints against Siddharth Vardarajan, editor of news website The Wire, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The police opened a criminal investigation into Vardarajan on accusations of spreading discord, enmity, and rumors during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to Mrityunjay Kumar, media adviser to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, who posted copies of the complaints on his Twitter account, and various news reports.
According to the complaints, Nitish Kumar Srivastav, officer in charge of the police station in the city of Faizabad, and Harvajan Godh, a local resident, asked the police to investigate Vardarajan for criticizing Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
“Misusing the COVID-19 lockdown to legally harass The Wire editor Siddharth Vardarajan is an attack on press freedom and an attempt to silence and discredit the journalist and the news outlet,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York, “The Uttar Pradesh police should immediately drop the criminal investigation into Vardarajan.”
In his complaint, Srivastav did not name Vardarajan but said the editor of The Wire created discord among common people by accusing Adityanath, in a “blog,” of violating the Indian government’s official guidelines on COVID-19 by participating in a religious ceremony along with dozens of other people, a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.
The Wire, in a statement April 2, said Adityanath’s attendance at a religious ceremony after Modi’s announcement is a matter of public record, and that the complaints aim at “stifling legitimate expression and factual information.”
In his complaint, Godh referred to an unspecified tweet by Siddharth — Vardarajan’s surname isn’t mentioned — which he claimed caused him “anguish.”
Srivastav and Godh want the police to investigate Vardarajan on three counts — disobeying the government’s order on the national lockdown under section 188 of the Indian penal code; making statements that would cause enmity and hatred among communities under section 505 (2) of the penal code, and cheating by impersonation by using a computer resource under section 66D of the Information Technology Act. CPJ could not determine why “impersonation” is referenced.
Kumar, media adviser to Adityanath, did not respond to request for comment via text message.
In the past year, CPJ has documented several press freedom violations in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
“The UP police seems to think it is its job to go after those who criticise the [chief minister]. The registration of an FIR [complaint with police] is a blatant attack on freedom of press,” The Wire said in its statement.