Police officers make announcements at a railway station on the outskirts of Kolkata, India on May 5, 2020. Police in the city opened an investigation against Anirban Chattopadhyay, one of several journalists subject to recent police investigations in India. (Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri)

Journalists in India assaulted, targeted with investigations amid COVID-19 pandemic

Between April 5, 2020, and June 11, 2020, one journalist was assaulted by police, another had his property destroyed by local authorities in retaliation for his reporting, and at least five others were subject to criminal investigations and, in one case, an interrogation, according to interviews CPJ conducted with five of the journalists and media reports. India has struggled to contain the coronavirus outbreak since March, and several journalists across the country have been investigated and detained by local authorities, as CPJ has documented.

On April 5, Kolkata police opened an investigation into Anirban Chattopadhyay, then-editor of Bengali-language daily Anandabazar Patrika, after Mitra Chatterjee, a government official from West Bengal state’s Ministry of Information and Cultural Affairs, filed a complaint with the police, according to multiple news reports.

According to the complaint, which was reviewed by CPJ, Chatterjee accused the newspaper of publishing “unauthorized and unidentified information with regard to the Corona related death toll figures as well as Corona affected persons.” No specific news report was mentioned in the complaint. According to news website The Print, state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee criticized Anandabazar Patrika in a press conference on May 27, saying the paper “created panic, spread apprehensions and provoked people” with its coverage of government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Cyclone Amphan, which hit the city on May 20. 

News website The Quint reported that Chattopadhyay was summoned for questioning by the police on May 25 and that he replied to the summons saying he was unable to go to the police station because doing so would pose a threat to his health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chattopadhyay asked the Calcutta High Court to grant him bail in anticipation that he would face arrest, The Quint reported.

Chattopadhyay resigned as the editor of Anandabazar Patrika on May 31, according to The Quint. He has not spoken publicly about the reason for his resignation. (In a Facebook post, his wife, Madhumita Chattopadhyay confirmed the investigation but denied its link to her husband’s resignation.) Chattopadhyay did not respond to requests for comment from CPJ sent via messaging app.

CPJ emailed Chatterjee and the West Bengal police department for comment, but did not immediately receive responses.

On May 16, Maharashtra police opened a criminal investigation into Rahul Zori, a journalist with Marathi-language privately held news channel TV9 Marathi, for his report on the channel on migrant camps that were not operating as a local official had promised in the Dhule district of the state, according to the journalist who spoke to CPJ via phone and the New Delhi-based news website Newslaundry.

Zori told CPJ that on May 16 he reported a story that Dhule official Aaba Mahajan’s pledge to create migrant camps to accommodate workers who lost housing due to the COVID-19-related economic crisis had gone unfulfilled. The same day, after Zori’s report aired, Mahajan filed a complaint with the police against Zori, accusing him of defamation and obstructing public officials, according to Newslaundry and the journalist.

Mahajan did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via text message. Dhule superintendent of police Chinmay Pandit and director general of police Subodh Kumar Jaiswal did not respond to an email request for comment from CPJ.

On May 21, police in Ropar, Rupnagar District of Punjab state opened a criminal investigation against Jai Singh Chhibber, a journalist with Punjabi Jagran newspaper, based on a complaint filed by Balwinder Singh, a local politician, allegedly on behalf of an unnamed state minister, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and The Wire.

Singh accused Chhibber of inciting offence, disobeying a public official, and obscenity after Chhibber published a story in Punjabi Jagran claiming an unnamed state minister is a follower of witchcraft and sacrifices black goats for good luck. Chhibber told CPJ that local police came to his home in order to arrest him, he believes. He said he was purposefully not home then, having received a tip from someone of the police’s arrival. 

CPJ reached the office of Punjab director general of police for comment on Chhibber’s case. The office said it forwarded the request to the inspector general of police, Ropar Range, who has not yet responded.

On May 22, municipal authorities in Narayankhed in Telangana state demolished journalist Shanigarapu Parameshwar’s home, which was under construction, according to Parameshwar, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and Bengaluru-based news website The Newsminute. The journalist, a reporter for Telugu news channel V6 News, alleged that the demolition of his house was in retaliation for his critical reporting on local lawmaker Mahareddy Bhupal Reddy.

Parameshwar told CPJ that on May 7 he had reported on V6 News that Reddy celebrated his 60th birthday with 500 supporters in violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules. On that date, a national lockdown against coronavirus was in effect.

After Parameshwar’s report, activist M Vittal reported Reddy’s behavior to the Telangana High Court, according to New Delhi-based news website The Wire. Reddy was served a notice by the court on May 21 asking him to show cause why he should not be arrested for violating the lockdown, The Wire reported. A day later Parameshwar’s house was demolished, according to daily Times of India.

Parameshwar said that senior municipal official G. Srinivas told him the demolition took place because Reddy wanted to take action against him for his negative report.

CPJ could not reach Srinivas and Reddy for comment, but they addressed allegations in interviews with The Newsminute. In the interviews, Reddy said that he did not instruct officials to demolish Parameshwar’s home; Srinavas said that the home was destroyed because Parameshwar lacked the required permits to build.

Also on May 22, Major Singh Punjabi, a journalist with Punjabi language daily Rozana Pehredar, was beaten up by two police officers in Mohali, Punjab, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and The Wire.

Punjabi told CPJ that he was attacked by police officers Om Prakash and Amar Nath outside a Sikh temple while covering a meeting between two Sikh congregations to resolve a dispute related to the temple for Rozana Pehredar. According to Punjabi, Prakash and Nath dragged him to the police station and beat him with a stick for 10 minutes before detaining him for an hour. Punjabi told CPJ he did not know why he was attacked.

He said that he was released after a senior police official who knew him intervened. According to The Wire, Punjabi was hospitalized at a local hospital and treated for injuries on his left leg and arms.

Superintendent of police Harvinder Singh Vrik told The Wire that Prakash and Nath have been suspended. Punjabi said he filed a formal complaint with the police, asking for a police investigation of the matter.

A spokesperson for SAS Nagar’s Superintendent of Police office told CPJ that he doesn’t have information on Punjabi.

On May 26, Rajasthan police in Pali district opened a criminal investigation into Virendra Singh Rajpurohit, an independent journalist who runs the YouTube channel News 30 Rajasthan, on charges of extortion and defamation for his critical analysis on the channel of the death of a labor leader in police custody, according to the journalist who spoke to CPJ via phone, and Indian Express.

According to Rajpurohit and court records, the Rajasthan High Court ordered the police not to arrest the journalist while conducting its investigation, but stipulated that if the investigation produces evidence to detain Rajpurohit, that the journalist must be given a 15-day warning before his arrest.

Rajasthan director general of police Bhupendra Singh and Pali superintendent of police Rahul Katakey did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via email.

On May 3, Mumbai police opened an investigation into Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Republic TV, on the basis of a complaint filed by Irfan Abubakar Shaikh, a secretary with a nongovernmental educational institute in Mumbai, according to Indian Express. Shaikh had accused the anchor of hate speech against Muslims during his April 29 show. In a statement to the police, Shaikh claimed Goswami’s outlet accused Muslims of being responsible for the coronavirus outbreak by linking a local mosque to a crowded migrant worker protest, Indian Express reported.

On June 11, police interrogated Goswami and the station’s chief financial officer, S. Sundaram, for five and a half hours, according to Indian Express. On June 12, the Bombay High Court directed the police not to arrest him until further notice in regard to the investigation sparked by Shaikh’s complaint, though the court directed the police to continue the investigation, the Indian Express reported.

CPJ sent an email to the police officer in charge of the case, Pandit Thorat, for comment, but did not receive a response. Arnab Goswami did not respond to CJP’s text message seeking comment.