New Delhi, June 18, 2020 — Authorities in Uttar Pradesh should immediately drop the criminal investigation into journalist Supriya Sharma, and cease legally harassing members of the press for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On June 13, police in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh state, opened an investigation into Sharma, executive editor of the Scroll.in news website, for alleged defamation and negligence that could spread the coronavirus, according to Scroll.in and other news reports.
The investigation was sparked by a June 8 article by Sharma, which alleged that residents of a village in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, had gone hungry during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to those reports.
Mala Devi, a woman mentioned as a case study in that article, filed the complaint that opened the investigation, alleging that Scroll.in misrepresented her remarks, according to a copy of the complaint, which CPJ reviewed.
“Launching a criminal investigation into a journalist for her work in the prime minister’s parliamentary constituency is a clear intimidation tactic and sends a chilling message to journalists across the country,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “Uttar Pradesh police should immediately drop the investigation into Supriya Sharma, who has not committed any crime and was simply doing her job as a journalist.”
If convicted of defamation, she could face a fine and up to two years in prison; if convicted of negligence in spreading COVID-19, she could face a fine and up to six months in prison under the Indian penal code. Police are also investigating Sharma for alleged violations of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Law, according to Scroll.in. Violations under that law are ineligible for bail and carry jail terms of up to five years, according to that report.
In a statement released today, Scroll.in said that it stands by Sharma’s reporting, and wrote that the investigation was “an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown.”
CPJ emailed the Varanasi senior superintendent of police for comment, but did not receive a reply. CPJ could not find contact information for Devi.