Local authorities across India filed legal notices against, questioned, or detained at least eight journalists between March 29, 2020, and May 17, 2020, amid the country’s lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, according to CPJ interviews with the journalists and media reports.
According to Om Sharma, a journalist with Hindi daily Divya Himachal in Baddi district of Himachal Pradesh, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and the New Delhi-based news website Newslaundry, since late March police have opened three criminal investigations against Sharma.
Sharma told CPJ that police opened the first investigation on March 29 on charges that he issued a false warning, spread false information, disobeyed the order of a public servant, acted negligently to spread infection of a dangerous disease, and endangered the life and personal safety of others for his Facebook Live report on a roadside protest by migrant workers unable to afford food because of the lockdown. Sharma made the report, which aired March 29, on his personal Facebook page, which he uses for his journalism; he counts 5,897 followers.
Sharma told CPJ that police opened the second investigation on April 26 on charges that he spread false information, issued a false warning, and disobeyed the order of a public servant by sharing a news article on his personal Facebook page that same day. According to Newslaundry, the article, which was written by another reporter for the Hindi daily Amar Ujala, was about a government order to close businesses if an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Newslaundry reported that the government denied the claim on Twitter and Amar Ujala removed the story.
Sharma told CPJ that the police opened a third investigation on April 27 on charges that he disobeyed the order of a public servant, and sent offensive messages on a computer or other communication device for criticizing the local government on social media.
Sharma told CPJ that he believes all three police investigations are retaliation for his critical reporting on the local government’s handling of the pandemic. In addition to the investigations, the journalist told CPJ that the police have refused to grant him curfew passes, which would allow him to be outside reporting during coronavirus-related restrictions.
Also in Himachal Pradesh, police opened three criminal investigations against Jagat Bains, a journalist with news channel News18 Himachal in Solan district, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and Newslaundry.
Bains told CPJ that police opened the first investigation on March 30 on charges that the journalist spread rumors during a pandemic for his video report published the same day on News18 Himachal about migrant workers who said they were not receiving food promised as part of a government relief package.
Bains told CPJ that police opened a second investigation against him April 25 on charges that he disobeyed the orders of a public servant and acted negligently in way that could spread infection of disease and endanger life for his April 23 report on News 18 Himachal about private vehicles crossing closed borders.
Bains told CPJ that police opened a third investigation, also on April 25, on charges that he assembled a crowd to drum up controversy, disobeyed the order of a public servant, and acted negligently in a way that could spread infection of disease and endanger life for his report that same day on News 18 Himachal on another protest of migrant workers who said they were denied government relief.
Bains told CPJ that he has also been denied curfew permits to do his reporting.
In a third case in Himachal Pradesh, police opened four separate criminal investigations into Ashwani Saini, a journalist in the Mandi district, according to Saini, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and Newslaundry. The journalist told CPJ that he produces news video reports for the Facebook page Mandi Live and is also a freelancer for the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran.
Saini told CPJ that police opened the first investigation on April 8 on charges that he spread false news and disobeyed the order of a public servant for his Mandi Live report the previous day on the failure of the local administration to supply food to migrant workers.
Saini told CPJ that police opened three further investigations against him on April 13 — one investigation on the charge that he trespassed, another on charges that he criminally intimidated another person and provoked a person in a way that could break the public peace, and the third on a charge that he disobeyed a public official. Saini said that the investigations were over his story posted earlier that day on Mandi Live on brick kilns continuing to operate in violation of national lockdown orders.
CPJ sent a text message to Himachal Pradesh Director General of Police SR Mardi for comment on all three journalists’ cases, but did not receive a response.
In Chhattisgarh state, Neeraj Shivhare, a reporter with the news website Bastar Ki Aawaz in the Dantewada district, told CPJ–and The Indian Express reported–that the local administration threatened to open a police investigation against Shivhare on April 26 over his report from the previous day on a woman who had to sell her refrigerator in order to pay for food during the lockdown. Shivhare told CPJ via phone that the local administration summoned him to explain why it should not file a legal case against him.
CPJ sent a text message to the spokesperson of the Chhattisgarh state government for comment, but did not receive a response.
According to Zubair Ahmed, a freelance journalist in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and the news website The Wire, Ahmed was arrested on April 27 on charges that he disobeyed a public official, acted malignantly in a way to spread infections, and obstructed government efforts to contain a disaster over his tweet the same day questioning a government decision to quarantine a family that had merely spoken to a COVID-19 patient over the phone. The Wire reported that Ahmed was referencing claims in an article by another journalist in the Andaman Chronicle, which police said were not true. Director General of Police of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Dependra Pathak defended the arrest, telling The Wire that Ahmed’s tweet created communal tensions in the islands.
Ahmed told CPJ he is now out on bail. CPJ sent an email to Pathak for comment but did not receive a response.
According to Manish Pandey, a reporter with the privately held television news channel News1 India, who spoke to CPJ via phone, Pandey was interrogated by police with the Special Task Force of Uttar Pradesh state on May 1. Pandey said the interrogation regarded his April 17 investigative story aired on the channel about a letter from a senior government official complaining about low-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) in government hospitals and medical colleges. Pandey told CPJ that he was questioned for an hour about his source of the letter.
Assistant superintendent of police Vishal Vikram Singh denied Pandey’s claim, according to Newslaundry, which also reported on the case. “I just called him over for tea for 5-10 minutes. We’re talking to many journalists to find out who leaked the letter,” he said
Also in Uttar Pradesh, on May 17, police in Sitapur opened an investigation into Ravindra Saxena, a journalist with Today-24 news portal, on charges that he disobeyed public servants, violated the disaster management law, and discriminated against a person of lower caste, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ over the phone, and a report in The Wire. Saxena told CPJ that the investigation is over his video report about people at a government-run quarantine center complaining about the poor quality of the food.
CPJ sent a message to Uttar Pradesh’s home secretary, who speaks to the press on police issues, to ask him about Pandey and Saxena’s cases, but did not receive a reply.
On May 11, Delhi police questioned Mahender Singh Manral, a journalist with newspaper The Indian Express, according to a report on the matter in the same publication, as well as The Hindu. The interrogation regarded Manral’s story published the previous day revealing that police had determined that a clip of a Muslim religious leader urging followers to defy coronavirus regulations was, in fact, doctored. According to Manral’s story, authorities had previously accused the leader of telling his followers to disobey social distancing and other regulations meant to stop the spread of COVID-19.
CPJ attempted to reach Manral via messaging app, but he did not respond to questions seeking comment. Nor did the Delhi police spokesperson, whom CPJ attempted to reach over text message.
On May 14, police in Bihar state’s Sitamarhi district opened an investigation into Gulshan Kumar Mithu, a journalist with Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, according to the news website The Wire Hindi. Police alleged that he violated four provisions of the Indian Penal Code including unlawful assembly, violating instructions of public officials during a pandemic, and acting negligently in a way likely to spread infection or disease, according to The Wire Hindi. The Wire Hindi reported that the investigation is over his May 12 report in Dainik Bhaskar on protests staged by migrant workers in a government-run quarantine facility over poor quality food and living conditions.
CPJ’s attempts to reach Mithu and his editors over the phone were unsuccessful. CPJ sent a text message to the director general of Bihar police, Gupteshwar Pandey, for comment, but did not receive a reply.