BUJ, DUJ, IJU and TJU Condemn Arrest of Journalists in Tripura; Welcome Bail

Demand Withdrawal of all Cases and End to Intimidation of Journalists covering Tripura violence

The Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) have strongly condemned the arrest of Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, two journalists from HW News Network, by Tripura police on Nov 14, 2021. We welcome the grant of bail to the two women journalists but demand that all cases foisted on journalists and civil society activists for their reportage or social media posts be withdrawn forthwith. The intimidatory tactics by Tripura police must stop.

In a joint statement, the BUJ and DUJ have said that the arrest of the two journalists was conducted in a highly irregular and legally questionable manner. The journalists had tweeted earlier in the day that they were proceeding to Silchar in Assam to take a return flight to Delhi when they were stopped by Assam police, ostensibly on the directions of Tripura police, and lodged in Nilam Bazaar police station in Karimganj district of Assam. After protests from local journalists and lawyers that there were no arrest warrants, they were not furnished with copies of FIRs nor were they any women police officers present, they were initially shifted to a night shelter home and taken by Tripura police by road to Gomati district by road at 1 a.m. on Nov 15, 2021.

The journalists were earlier picked up in connection with an FIR lodged against their reportage on the alleged burning of a mosque in Pal Bazaar in Fatikroy in Unakoti district. Police said that, in their tweets and videos of victims of violence, they made false allegations that the Quran was burnt in a mosque. An FIR, lodged on the complaint of a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Kanchan Das, alleged that they had sought to ‘create hatred between religious groups by false fabrication, concealing documents etc”.

The journalists have been charged under IPC sections120 (B) (punishment for criminal conspiracy), 153(A) (offence of promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion) and 504 (intentional insult).

It is clear that police in Tripura have unleashed a concerted attack on all independent attempts to investigate and comment on the outbreak of communal violence in the state on Oct 26, 2021. The arrest of the two journalists follows the lodging of FIRs on Nov 4 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, for promoting enmity between groups, forgery and provoking breach of peace against a team of lawyers, led by Supreme Court advocate Ehtesham Hashmi, and comprising members of Lawyers for Democracy, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, who were part of a fact-finding team to investigate the outbreak of violence.

Barely two days later, Tripura police filed charges under the UAPA against 102 social media accounts including those of journalists. Newsclick’s senior editor Shyam Meera Singh, Maktoob Media’s Meer Faisal, freelance journalists Sartaj Alam and Arif Shah and London-based monthly newspaper Byline Times’s global correspondent C.J. Werleman were among those charged. Police wrote to Twitter to block their accounts for, as Shyam Meera Singh said, merely writing three words: “Tripura is burning”.

The jittery action of the Tripura police to censor and silence information from the ground bodes ill for a democracy. These efforts to curb the freedom of journalists to collect and disseminate information must be stiffly resisted. All over the country, we are witnessing brutal attempts to criminalise journalists who are engaged in the pursuit of their legitimate professional duties. Journalists Aasif Sultan and Siddique Kappan continue under incarceration since August 2018 and October 2020 respectively. In the last year alone, at least fifty journalists have been arrested, face FIRs or have been assaulted for their reportage.

There has been a sustained assault on the rights of the media to report independently, without fear or favour. Independent news media houses are raided and their journalists face criminal charges. Journalists are weakened by mass retrenchments and layoffs. A blatantly partisan media pushes a selective and hate-driven agenda.

The BUJ and DUJ call upon all journalists to resist attempts to erode independent media and to join hands in solidarity against these attacks and arrests. The democratic right to freedom of expression and access to information is at stake.

IJU, TJU Condemn Cases Against Journalists

New Delhi, 15 November 2021: The Indian Journalists Union joins its affiliate the Tripura Journalists Union in expressing concern over detention and filing of cases against two Delhi-based women journalists of HW News Network, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha for their reportage and tweet on the communal friction in the State. Though the two were released on bail by the CJM court in Gomti district today on furnishing a bond of Rs 75000 each, the IJU demands the cases, as well as against journalist Shyam Meera Singh (under UAPA), be withdrawn immediately, as these have a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists and stifle freedom of speech and expression.

In a statement on Sunday, HW News Network said Sakunia and Jha were “detained by Assam police on their way to Silchar’ on request of Tripura police. They were served FIR, charging them under IPC Sections 120B, 153A and 504 on complaint of a local VHP member for allegedly ‘maligning’ the image of Tripura government and VHP.” After due legal process both were allowed to leave their hotel, but taken back to Tripura for further questioning. This, said the Network “is sheer harassment and targeting of the press on part of Tripura police and government to supress us from reporting facts of the case.”

On its part, the Tripura police in a statement said the two journalists were booked at Kakraban police station, South Tripura “for creating hatred between communities by fabricating, concealing of record etc in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy as revealed from the tweeter post by Sakunia”. In the social media, it said, she posted a video relating to a claim that a holy Quran was burnt in the half burnt prayer hall on 19 October. However, on investigation, no such damaged books/documents was brought to the IO notice, the police said and thus a suo moto complaint was filed. The journalist was asked to give details of the said document, but instead of cooperating she left Tripura. The Assam police help was thus sought. The two have also been booked for ‘spreading communal hatred’ at Paul Bazaar under Fatikroy police station under north Tripura.

The Tripura Journalists Union had earlier demanded the government issue orders for immediate and unconditional release of the two journalists. Besides, TJU General Secretary led a fact finding team to Udaipur, South Tripura, where the journalists had been held.

In a statement, IJU President and former Member of Press Council of India, Geetartha Pathak and Secretary General and Vice President of International Federation of Journalists Sabina Inderjit said the action of the Tripura police comes across as sustained harassment and intimidation of the journalists under the grab of quelling ‘vested interests trying to flare up communal incident in Tripura’. Though the women journalists have been granted bail and that the Supreme Court has agreed to admit Shyam Meera Singh’s case against UAPA charges, the Union said the harassment they face is unsettling and authorities must refrain from such sinister actions.

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