Condemn the UP Government’s attempts to silence independent media

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Several eminent and internationally renowned public figures have signed this statement, including Justice Madan B. Lokur, former judge of the Supreme Court, Jim Spigelman AC QC, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales & former chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Justice K. Chandru, former judge of the Madras high court, and Justice Anjana Prakash, former judge of the Patna high court; former Chiefs of Naval Staff, Admiral Ramdas, and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat; Yashwant Sinha, former external affairs and finance minister of India; former bureaucrats including Shivshankar Menon, former foreign secretary and former National Security Adviser, Julio Ribeiro, former Adviser to Governor of Punjab and former Ambassador to Romania, M.S. Gill, former CEC, Narendra Sisodia, former Secretary, Ministry of Finance, GoI, Anand Arni and Vappala Balachandran (both former Special Secretaries, RAW), and Sujatha Singh, former Foreign Secretary; writers, film personalities, and artists, including Vikram Seth, Nayantara Sahgal, Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, K. Satchidanandan, Kiran Desai, S. Raghunandana, Meena Kandasamy; Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah, Nandita Das, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Kiran Rao, Anand Patwardhan; Rabbi Shergill T.M. Krishna, Mallika Sarabhai; Sir Anish Kapoor, Atul Dodia, Rekha Rodwittiya, Vivan Sundaram, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh Dayanita Singh, Nikhil Roshan and Gauri Gill; journalists including Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, John Lloyd, Contributing Editor, FT & co-founder, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Enrico Franceschini of La Repubblica, Manoj Joshi, formerly of The Times of India, and Bharat Bhushan and Nicholas Dawes, formerly of the Hindustan Times, Amit Baruah, resident editor of The Hindu, and Seema Chishti, senior editor of the Indian Express; eminent public figures like C.U. Singh, senior advocate at the Supreme Court, AGK Menon, architect and town planner, Shanta Sinha, former head of the NCPCR, Devaki Jain, Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey, Swami Agnivesh, Aruna Roy and Yogendra Yadav; and over a thousand professors across the globe including Naresh Dadhich of IUCAA, T.R. Govindarajan of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, V. Vasanthi Devi, Former Vice-Chancellor MS University, Sheldon Pollock of Columbia University, Kaushik Basu and Alaka Basu of Cornell University, Arjun Appadurai of NYU, Ganesh Devy, Ramachandra Guha, Jean Dreze, David Shulman of Hebrew University, Jan Breman of Leiden, Pranab Bardhan of UC Berkeley, Romila Thapar of JNU, Prasanjit Duara of Duke University, Veena Das of Johns Hopkins University, Partha Chatterjee of CSSS Calcutta, and Homi Bhabha of Harvard University. Bianca Jagger has signed on behalf of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, and Rachel Jolley on behalf of Index on Censorship.

Click to see the current list of signatories –4974 have signed!

We, the undersigned, are shocked at the action of the UP police under Yogi Adityanath in filing criminal charges against The Wire and against one of its founding editors, Siddharth Varadarajan. This attack on media freedom, especially during the Covid-19 crises, endangers not just free speech, but the public’s right to information.

The target of this action is a factual story on the Tablighi Jamaat and its exposure to Covid-19. Towards the end, the impugned article merely pointed out that “Indian believers” more generally have been late to adopt precautions and avoid congregation, recalling UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s plans, as late as March 18, to proceed with a religious fair at Ayodhya and his flouting of the national lockdown and social distancing norms by taking part in a religious ceremony along with others on March 25.

Two FIRs were filed under various sections of the law on April 1, one on a complaint by a resident of Ayodhya and the other on the basis of a complaint by the SHO of the Kotwali Nagar police station, Faizabad. A plain reading of the sections invoked in the FIRs (given below) makes it clear they cannot possibly apply to the article in question. The FIRs were followed up with a gross display of intimidation on April 10 when policemen arrived in a black SUV with no numberplates at Varadarajan’s residence in Delhi to issue a legal notice ordering him to appear in Ayodhya on April 14 at 10 am.

That the UP government sent policemen driving across 700 kilometres during the national lockdown to issue this summons when the postal system is still operational speaks volumes for its priorities. Given that the lockdown will still be in force on April 14, this summons is impossible for Varadarajan to follow, while failure to appear may prompt the police to seek his arrest.

The Wire, along with other independent media and journalists, has been courageous and consistent in continuing to present the facts. The UP police action is just the latest in a series of attempts by the ruling establishment, or persons close to them, to entangle The Wire and its editors in legal cases in an effort to shut them down.

The police action against The Wire also comes against the backdrop of the demonization of Muslims in a section of the media as being responsible for the spread of the novel coronavirus in India. On April 6, the WHO felt the need to reiterate the principle that media should avoid religious or other profiling of COVID-19 cases.

We, the undersigned,

  1. Call upon the Government of Uttar Pradesh to withdraw the FIR against Siddharth Varadarajan and The Wire, and drop all criminal proceedings.
  2. We urge the Government of India and all state governments not to use the pandemic as a cover to trample upon media freedom. A medical emergency should not serve as the pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency.
  3. We call upon the Indian media to not communalise the pandemic.

Background

FIR 0246/2020 filed on April 1, 2020 under Section 66 D of the Information Technology Act, Sections 188 and 505 (2) of the Indian Penal Code is based on a complaint by one Harvajan Goud, s/o Ram Sundar, r/o Ramdatpur, Atrava Darshannagar, Kotwali Ayodhya. The police have now added Section 67 of the IT Act, Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act (EDA) and Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (DMA).

The complaint in this FIR is that Harvajan Goud came across a tweet by one Siddharth on social media and was “pained to see how someone had written such false statement” on his chief minister. The complainant therefore asked for the IT act to be invoked. No specific detail of any tweet is provided. The sections cited in the FIR are:

·      Sec 66D of the IT Act relates to ‘punishment for cheating by impersonation using computer source.’

·      Sec 67 of the IT Act relates to the transmission of obscene material by electronic means.

·      Sec 188 of the IPC and Sec 3 of the EDA is ‘disobedience of any order of a public servant’.

·      Sec 505 (2) relates to ‘statements conducting public mischief’ which ‘create or promote enmity, hatred or ill will between classes.”

·      Sec 54 of the DMA applies to ‘a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic’.

FIR 0268/2020 also filed on April 1, 2020 under Sections 188 and 505 (2) by Nitish Kumar Shrivastav, Inspector in Charge, Kotwali Nagar, Faizabad, against the Editor of The Wire, (name and address unknown) notes that: 

(translation from Hindi) On that day it came to his notice that during the lockdown, the Editor of the Wire, with an intent to spread rumours and enmity, published the following on his ‘blog’:

(reproduced in English): “On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Yogi Adityanath insisted that a large fair planned for Ayodhya on the occasion of Ram Navami from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual while Acharya Paramhans said that ‘Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus”. One day after Modi announced the “curfew like” national lockdown on March 24, Adityanath violated the official guidelines to take part in a religious ceremony in Ayodhya along with dozens of people.”

(translated from Hindi): This is the way during the lockdown caused by the corona pandemic and the imposition of Sec 144, the improper remarks by the Wire Editor against Yogi Adityanath caused anger among the general public. This comes under Sec 188/505 (2) of the IPC.

This FIR does not mention any specific article but the quoted passage appears to have been taken from ‘As COVID-19 Cases Spike in Nizamuddin, Nehru Stadium in Delhi to Become Quarantine Centre’, published in The Wire on March 31, 2020 at https://thewire.in/health/as-covid-19-cases-spike-nehru-stadium-in-delhi-to-be-converted-to-quarantine-centre. An earlier version of the story incorrectly attributed Paramhans’s quote to Adityanath and the same wrong attribution featured in a tweet by Varadarajan. A correction to the story was made the very next day and a clarification tweeted below the original tweet.

The story as it stood at the time the FIR was lodged was factually correct in every respect, and the two primary claims about Adityanath – that his government initially had every intention of going ahead with the Ram Navami mela in Ayodhya from March 25 despite the fear of COVID-19, and that he took part in a religious gathering in Ayodhya on March 25 despite the lockdown —  have been reported by multiple news outlets.

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