Shri. Ram Nath Kovind
Hon’ble President of India
Appeal to The President Of India
We are writing to you as a matter of urgent importance, asking for your intervention in the arrest of our journalist colleague Siddique Kappan by the Uttar Pradesh police. Kappan, who works with a number of news organisations and is a member of the Kerala Uion of Working Journalists, was arrested on October 5, 2020 by the police while on his way to Hathras in western Uttar Pradesh, to report on the recent murder of a young girl of the Dalit community.
Three others travelling with Kappan were also arrested and have now been charged under draconian provisions of the law, including sedition. As various observers both in India and elsewhere have pointed out, the statutes invoked, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, are today subject to rampant abuse to keep civil society actors and media practitioners in prison for extended periods of time.
The U.P. state government has been on the path of lawlessness for quite some time, going back to its brutal response to the state-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, still to be assessed for its constitutionality by the Supreme Court. The months since have seen an escalation of its lawless conduct, including in the manner it has stopped movement from Delhi into western districts of the state, to avoid accountability for atrocities on people of the Dalit community.
Just days back, the U.P. Police leaked audio-transcripts of a phone conversation between a journalist of the India Today group and the family of the victim. The conversations were widely played over social media and picked up by the TV channels. Media organisations and professional bodies have demanded information on the legal authority that the U.P. Police used to access these telephone calls but have been largely ignored.
We would like to underline that the U.P. government’s campaign against journalism and the public right to information, is part of a wider pattern in which other state governments and the centre are active participants. Journalists seeking to report accurately on matters of public importance, such as recent communal riots in the national capital city and targeted violence against minorities, have been threatened and harassed. The police forces have increasingly been functioning to shut down independent media reporting.
During the early days of the pandemic induced lockdown, the U.P. government filed criminal charges against Supriya Sharma, who had reported for the news website Scroll, on the difficulties faced by a Dalit family in Varanasi after economic activity nationwide was frozen late in March. She only managed to secure a temporary reprieve from the courts late in August.
The nationwide paralysis seemingly was no deterrent for police from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh driving all the way to Delhi in April, to serve summons on Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the news website The Wire, to appear before them to answer charges of criminal defamation. Similarly, veteran journalist Vinod Dua was served a notice to appear before the police in Himachal Pradesh overnight, during the Covid lockdown.
Other journalists continue to face criminal cases filed in various police jurisdictions in the country, with obvious intent to harass and intimidate and prevent them from performing their job of critically recording and commenting on current politics. In mid June the Rights and Risks Analysis Group compiled a report stating that 55 journalists had been targeted for reporting during the lockdown just between 25 March and 31 May, 2020. They faced either arrest or registration of FIRs or summons or show causes notices besides physical assaults, destruction of properties and threats for reportage on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of opinion and expression.
This pattern of intimidation of journalists is continuing. On August 18, 2020, Prashant Kannojia was arrested for a tweet. UP police picked him up from Delhi and he is still languishing in jail . This is the second time that he has been jailed. On September 29, 2020 Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested in Manipur for an allegedly defamatory Facebook post. This is the third time he has been arrested and jailed.
Some news media have also been sent notices for critical reportage, including reports on corruption in hospital supplies, inadequate testing and poor hospitalisation arrangements for Covid patients. In contrast, hardly any channel or newspaper has been prosecuted for hate speech.
The international media and media unions abroad have commented extensively on the increasing rights violations in the country which is extremely damaging to India’s reputation abroad.
Meanwhile hate speech continues with impunity. When crowds of anxious migrant workers assembled near Bandra railway station in Mumbai after false rumours were floated of a possible resumption of railway services, news channels ran highly inflammatory stories alleging that a mosque located nearby had fanned the rumours.
A case under sections of the law dealing with hate speech was filed against the infamous Republic TV based in Mumbai. Yet the law did not take its course. The channel gained a hearing on priority basis from the Supreme Court which granted it protection from criminal action. The Bombay High Court subsequently vacated all charges.
Similar consideration has not been extended to any other media platform that has done what is the mission of journalism, to speak the truth and to inform.
Rather, there has been complete impunity for hate speech through the media. In the early days of the lockdown, several news channels spread the scurrilous rumour of a sinister jihadi conspiracy to infect millions in the country with the lethal coronavirus, all because a religious congregation in Delhi had been unable to disperse after the lockdown was suddenly announced. Even after the Bombay High Court dismissed all the motivated chargesheets filed in connection with that event, none of the media channels that participated eagerly in the conspiracy theory chose to acknowledge their error, let alone apologise.
Needless to say, crimes of violence against mediapersons continue to be neglected by the agencies we have entrusted with the mission of enforcing law and order. It is three years since Gauri Lankesh was shot dead at the doorstep of her home in Bangalore, in clear retaliation for her courage and her consistently strong journalistic work. It is small wonder that the prosecution in the case has languished and may trail off into a dead end soon.
We are writing to you, in the expectation that as first citizen of the country, you will use your moral authority to caution the government at the centre and the states, against persisting on this perilous course. This reckless path of attacking the media in order to deny the public the truth that they are entitled to know, is the first step towards attacking the very foundations of our democracy.
General Secretary –DUJ