A man enters Facebook's office in Mumbai, India, on May 27, 2016. Facebook India director Ankhi Das recently filed a criminal complaint against journalist Awesh Tiwari. (Reuters/Shailesh Andrade)

Facebook India executive files criminal complaint against journalist

New Delhi, August 19, 2020 – Facebook regional director Ankhi Das should withdraw her criminal complaint against journalist Awesh Tiwari, and respect citizens’ rights to criticize her, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 16, Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South, and Central Asia, filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police, accusing Tiwari and other social media users of threatening her, “making sexually coloured remarks,” and defaming her, according to news website Newslaundry and a copy of the complaint shared on social media.

The complaint alleges that Das received threats following the August 14 publication of a Wall Street Journal article alleging her fealty to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.   

The complaint lists Tiwari, Chhattisgarh state bureau chief of news channel Swarajya Express, who frequently posts political commentary on Facebook, as an “accused person” and links to his profile.

It cites a comment made by a Facebook user on August 16 in response to a post by Tiwari, and alleges that it constituted a threat. The commenter was responding to a post Tiwari published earlier that day citing the Wall Street Journal article and criticizing Das for her and Facebook’s alleged inaction in controlling hate speech by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party against religious minorities. CPJ reviewed a screenshot of the comment, which has been removed.

In her complaint to the police, Das asked for an investigation to be opened against Tiwari for sexual harassment, defamation, and criminal intimidation. If charged and convicted, Tiwari could face fines as well as up to two years in prison for sexual harassment, up to two years for defamation, and up to seven years in prison for criminal intimidation, according to the Indian penal code.

“As a journalist, I put a status on Facebook based on the report published in The Wall Street Journal. It is ridiculous to call it threatening,” Tiwari told CPJ in a phone interview.

“It is patently absurd that an executive of Facebook, which claims a commitment to freedom of the press and free expression, would file a criminal complaint against a journalist for criticizing her on that very platform,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “In trying to intimidate Awesh Tiwari, Ankhi Das is merely suggesting that The Wall Street Journal story that he cited struck a sensitive nerve. She should immediately withdraw her complaint.”

Das did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment. A Facebook representative told CPJ via email that the social media outlet takes the safety and security of its employees seriously, but said it does not comment on individual employee matters.

Das’ complaint names five social media users who allegedly committed offenses against her. Tiwari was the only journalist among those named, according to Newslaundry.

Tiwari told CPJ that he has received 11 calls from unknown phone numbers threatening him with imprisonment, lawsuits, and physical harm since the news of Das’ police complaint broke.

On August 17, Tiwari filed a counter complaint with the police in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, accusing Das of criminal intimidation, defamation, and hurting religious sentiments, according to the Hindustan Times.  Tiwari said he also filed complaints against two Facebook users who made posts threatening to burn down his house; screenshots of those posts were published by Newslaundry.

The Delhi police told the Economic Times on August 17 that an investigation had been opened into Das’ complaint. CPJ messaged the police press relations office for comment, but did not receive any response.

[Editors’ note: This article has been changed in its headline and third to fifth paragraphs to clarify the allegations in Das’ complaint.]