New Delhi, May 13, 2020 — Authorities in Gujarat must immediately release journalist Dhaval Patel and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On May 11, police in Ahmedabad, in western Gujarat state, detained Patel and yesterday charged him with sedition and spreading false news amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to his lawyer Anand Yagnik, who spoke to CPJ over the phone, and news reports.
The charges stem from a news article Patel, editor of the Face of Nation news website, published on May 7 alleging that Gujarat’s chief minister may be replaced after displeasure of his handling of the COVID-19 health crisis, Yagnik said.
Patel will be seen before a magistrate court tomorrow at 11 a.m., Yagnik said, adding that he requested a hearing with a session court, which has the ability to grant bail in sedition cases.
If convicted of violating India’s Sedition Law, Patel could face life in prison. For spreading false claims amid the pandemic, he could be sentenced to two years in prison under the Disaster Management Act.
“Gujarat authorities should release journalist Dhaval Patel immediately and drop the ludicrous charges against him,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “Indian journalists must be allowed to cover local political issues—especially those related to the COVID-19 pandemic—freely and without fear that they will be arrested and charged with sedition.”
Police opened an investigation against the journalist for sedition and spreading false claims during a pandemic on May 8, according to news reports.
Yagnik told CPJ that the police presented Patel before a magistrate at about 5 p.m. today, more than two days after he was detained. Under Indian law, any arrestee must be produced before a judge within 24 hours of arrest. Yagnik also said that the police did not allow him to meet his client until this evening, despite multiple requests to see him earlier.
Assistant Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) B.V. Gohil told news website The Print that Patel was formally arrested one day after his detention as the police followed a special protocol laid down by the Gujarat High Court that anyone who is being arrested must be tested for the COVID-19 virus first.
CPJ messaged Director General of Police Shivanand Jha for comment, but did not receive any reply.
CPJ has documented a sharp rise in arrests and legal cases against journalists since the pandemic began. Mumbai police arrested Rahul Kulkarni on April 15, Tamil Nadu police arrested Andrew Sam Raja Pandian on April 23, and Andaman and Nicobar police arrested Zubair Ahmed on April 28.