Even though members of the Karnataka state government have provided broad assurances that they will drop charges against Naveen Soorinje, the young journalist remains imprisoned two months after he was arrested for exposing an assault on women by Hindu extremists. Welcome to Incredible India, where a journalist can be locked up for documenting a crime against women even as millions express outrage over medieval mindsets following the fatal gang rape of a Delhi student in December.
"We don't know how sincere these assurances are. They may just be efforts to stall his release," Sudipto Mondal of The Hindu told CPJ by phone.
Soorinje, a TV reporter for Kannada-language Kasturi TV, was arrested following his report on an attack by right-wing Hindu hooligans in July. Soorinje had been tipped off that a large group of extremists were about to launch an attack on a party in the port city of Mangalore in an effort to police women they deemed "morally corrupt" for allegedly staying out late, drinking, and partying with men belonging to a minority religion. Upon arriving at the scene, the Hindu extremists chased, beat, and groped young women, media reports said.
Soorinje, who says his calls to the police went unanswered, caught the crime on camera. The 43 other individuals who were charged in the episode were identified on the basis of Soorinje's footage, according to New Delhi-based investigative magazine Tehelka. But apparently, no good deed goes unpunished: Soorinje was arrested by Mangalore police on November 7 and charged with more than a dozen offenses, including rioting, assault and rioting with deadly weapons, and using criminal force on women with the intention of outraging their modesty, according to reports. The charges leveled against Soorinje seem ludicrous. "An argument is being made that holding a camera is a crime," Arvind Narrain, a lawyer with the Alternate Law Forum, a lawyers' collective based in the state, told CPJ.
Soorinje has denied taking part in the attack and says the charges are in retaliation for documenting it and for accusing the police of complicity. Furthermore, a witness on the basis of whose complaint Soorinje landed in jail, has said that he was made to sign a blank sheet of paper by Mangalore Police, Tehelka reported. Journalists from across the country have been pressing the state government for Soorinje's release, including a hunger strike. "There is consensus across activists and journalists that Naveen is innocent. He's one in a million for fearlessly exposing the Hindu right," said Narrain.
Sadly, in naming Soorinje as a co-conspirator, the courts are making no distinction between him and the attackers. A Mangalore court denied Soorinje's request for bail on November 27, G. Vishnu, a Tehelka journalist reporting on the case, told CPJ. Soorinje was denied bail again on December 26 by the Karnataka High Court.
Soorinje's detention seems indicative of a wider penchant among Indian authorities to try to silence the messenger rather than deal with the root problem. On Friday, police charged Zee News for broadcasting an interview with the companion of the Delhi rape victim.