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Case against editors Mrinal Pande, Vinod Jose, Zafar Agha, Rajdeep Sardesai and Caravan owners: Fresh attack on free speech

By Geeta Seshu

The right to Freedom of Expression in India has been under attack from multiple directions, the latest being the sedition case cases filed by the police in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka against Congress-I MP, Shashi Tharoor, Caravan owner Paresh Nath and senior journalists and editors Mrinal Pande, Vinod Jose, Anant Nath, Zafar Agha and Rajdeep Sardesai, following their social media posts on the violence in Delhi on Republic Day.

In a prevailing environment of censorship, stand up comedian Munawar Faruqui languishes in jail as also journalists Aasif Sultan, Siddique Kappan on chagres under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA). The Executive Editor of The Frontier Manipur (TFM) Paojel Chaoba and Editor-in-chief Dhiren Sadokpam were detained for two days on charges of sedition. Another stand up comedian, Kunal Kamra has mounted a defense for a contempt case. Journalist Neha Dixit faces a stalking and attempted break in to her residence. Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta managed to get a stay on an arrest warrant on a criminal defamation case filed by the Adani Group. The Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim had to file a special leave petition before the Supreme Court against an order of the Meghalaya High Court which had refused to quash criminal proceedings against her. The News Laundry’s Executive Editor Manisha Pande battles a civil defamation case filed by Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd for Rupees 100 Crore and The News Minute’s Editor Dhanya Rajendran is dealing with a legal notice filed by The Republic. In the wake of the farmers protest, the Internet continues to be shut down in parts of Haryana.

Outside the areas where the Internet was shut down, there were several thousand posts on the farmers’ tractor rally and the “violence” on R-Day. But these prominent editors and journalists have been targeted for their critical views and the fig-leaf is that they acted in tandem to fuel violence!

The case against all of them hinges on their social-media posts on the death of a farmer during the tractor rally, reports of which have been so fraught with confusion and mistrust and lack of information from official sources. Eyewitnesses told journalists that the man (later identified as Navreet Singh) was shot in police firing but the police said that a postmortem done on the body revealed that he died when the tractor overturned. His family maintains that the laceration wounds mentioned in the post-mortem report were consistent with the view that he sustained a bullet injury.

While police said that CCTV footage of the incident showed that the farmer died when his tractor overturned, there continues to be a controversy over the cause of death, amidst reports that CCTV footage had been taken away by police. “He died of the antemortem injuries which he received after his tractor overturned as seen in a viral video, Avinash Chandra, a senior UP police officer, was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.

According to a complaint by a Noida-based resident, Arpit Mishra, the tweets and social-media posts were based on false information and were coordinated to cause a riot and communal violence. Of course, the complainant’s fear of communal violence was unfounded since the skirmish  on the day – between police and farmers – can hardly be said to be a riot or a clash between two communities. On the contrary, several observers and commentators have said the police resorted to violence on a peaceful march by the farmers. Sanjiv Krishan Sood, retired Additional Director General, Border Security Force,  even termed it as violenceself-inflicted by an insensitive government.’

Meanwhile, Mishra told The News Minute that he didn’t expect the police to press sedition charges against the seven.

While Section 124A (sedition) attracts punishment of up to life imprisonment, other serious charges against include Section 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage reli­gious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or reli­gious beliefs), with punishment of up to four years, Section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc) and Section 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) with punishment of  up to three years, Section 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) with  punishment of up to two years, Section 298 (uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person), Section 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), Section 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation), Section 502 (sale of printed or engraved substance containing defamatory matter), Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) and Section 66 of The Information Technology Act, 2000 (computer-related offences), with punishment of up to three years.

Clearly, the journalists were being charged with just about every rule in the book for live tweeting of conflicting versions of an event in a tense and rapidly developing situation or even commenting and sharing information on events in question (in this case, the death of the farmer). To be sure, journalists are confronted with ethical issues in such situations especially when there is intense pressure to be first off the block. But journalists do take care to put out riders on the news they transmit and even a cursory examination of their intent indicates the larger responsibility they owe allegiance to.

 (The FIR against The  Republic owner-editor Arnab Goswami for making blatantly inflammatory statements alleging that Muslims were responsible for  the Palghar lynching and then shifting the blame to Christian missionaries and even human rights activists is a good case in point. After Goswami obtained interim relief from the Bombay High Court in the case, the Mumbai police issued him a show cause notice to sign a good behavior bond of Rs Ten Lakh with one guarantor for a one-year period).

India Today editor Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted that a farmer who he identified as Navneet Kumar, was ‘killed allegedly in police firing at ITO.’ (Emphasis mine).  His tweet was later deleted but in an unprecedented move, the news channel decided to take him off the air for two weeks and dock his salary for one month.

In a tweet, the Caravan Editor Vinod Jose commented on the magazine’s reports of the incident and said, “A response from the Delhi Police is awaited. We will update this thread once it is received.” 

In a tweet, Mrinal Pande, the National Herald’s senior consulting editor, had only responded with a ‘Ganatantra Diwas Par! Sharm!” to a tweet, which asked ‘did Delhi police permit the #26 JanDelhiTractorParade just so they could murder the farmers in cold blood?’

It is unclear what exactly Zafar Agha, the Editor-in Chief of National Herald and the Urdu daily Qaumi Awaz, posted and in any case, his social media presence is quite negligible, with barely 900 friends/followers on Facebook or Twitter.

The Delhi Press owner Paresh Nath doesn’t have a Twitter account.

The Executive Publisher of Delhi Press and Editor, The Caravan,  Anant Nath, has a Twitter account with 955 followers. His last post on Twitter on 14 December 2020 was of a job-opening with the Editors Guild of India.

Curiously, the most relevant provision in the law to deal with errors in reportage doesn’t even make it to the list of charges in the FIR. Even then, Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860, which attracts a punishment of up to three years for making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report which may cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public, would need to be examined in terms of the intent and the fact that the tweets were either deleted or clarifications issued, ought to be taken into consideration.

While the FIR says that all the accused worked in a coordinated manner to spread fake news, the one common thread between them is the fact that they have spoken out and written strongly against various policies of the government. They are bona fide dissidents. The swift registration of the FIR and the clubbing together of all these prominent voices smacks of a vengeful law enforcement machinery.

It has been repeatedly said that sedition is a tool of harassment. It has been used against students, human rights activists, journalists, cartoonists, citizens who don’t stand up for the national anthem in a movie theatre, a school teacher and the parent of a young student in a school play, citizens who post cartoons or even those who merely like posts on social media!  

It was read down by a Constitutional bench in the Kedar Nath judgement of 1962, which held that the charge was only applicable when there was a tendency to cause public disorder or incitement to violence.

Sedition is a colonial-era law that does not belong in the statute books of any democracy. The longer it remains, the more it will be used to accuse, stigmatise and punish voices of dissent. 

The case against the journalists is clearly meant to do so and must be strongly resisted.

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