PEN Delhi and PEN International express concerns over a First Information Report being lodged on June 18 against senior journalist Supriya Sharma, executive editor at Scroll.in, as well as Scroll.in‘s chief editor. Scroll.in is one of India’s leading independent news portals. While he has not been named in the FIR, Scroll.in’s editor is Naresh Fernandes.

Ms Sharma recently wrote a series of articles about the impact of the nationwide lockdown imposed in India to prevent and contain the spread of coronavirus. In one story she interviewed a resident of Varanasi’s Domari village, who said in the published article that she was a domestic worker and had experienced acute food distress during the lockdown as she did not have the paperwork necessary to get food assistance. The interviewee has now filed a complaint, alleging that Ms Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity in the article. Varanasi is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, and Domari village is part of Mr Modi’s Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (Parliamentary Model Village Scheme). The interviewee now alleges that her remarks were misrepresented because she says she is not a domestic worker but a sanitation worker and says neither she nor her family faced any problems during the lockdown.

In its public response, Scroll.in stands by its story. It says the interviewed was conducted on June 5 and the interviewee’s statements were reported accurately. “The FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown,” Scroll.in said.

The first information report is prepared by the police when they receive complaints of an offence under Indian laws and decide which provisions of the law apply. The law lays down which offences are cognisable and which aren’t. An offence is cognisable when the complaint is about grave crimes such as violence, murder, or rape and the police can make an arrest without warrant and initiate investigations without a court order.

Among the sections of the Indian law that the FIR cites are those in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989, amended 2015). The FIR against Ms Sharma and Mr Fernandes cites Sections 3 (1) (r) (someone not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe intentionally insulting or intimidating, with an intent to humiliate, a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view) and 3 (1) (s) (the same abusing any member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe with caste name in any place within public view). The FIR also cites Sections 501 and 269 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 501 deals with defamation and Section 269 concerns ‘negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.’ Under the SC and ST Act of 1989 the defendants cannot seek anticipatory bail.

That this assault on press freedom is another in a long line of such cases during the pandemic makes it even more disturbing. A report by the Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), published last week, claimed that 55 Indian journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on COVID-19 or “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020”.

In a statement, Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

“Supriya Sharma’s report pointed out a profound weakness in India’s poorly-planned lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. Her stories have shown the adverse impact of the lockdown on India’s most vulnerable people. That it happened in the Prime Minister’s constituency is no doubt embarrassing to the government. For the police to treat the complaint from the interviewee as a cognisable offence shows that the real intent of the state is not to provide an effective remedy for the complainant, but to silence dissent. The invoking of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocity) Act is particularly disturbing, since it prevents the defendants from seeking anticipatory bail. In India, the process is often the punishment, and Ms Sharma’s report cannot in any sense be described as ‘a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’.

“Several governments around the world have used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on investigative media, and India is no exception, as the intimidation of Vidya Krishnan and Siddharth Varadarajan earlier this year have shown. PEN International calls upon Indian authorities to desist from using draconian laws against independent reporting and urges parliamentarians to amend the law that allows the state and individuals to use them to stop reporting they don’t like.”

Chiki Sarkar, treasurer of PEN Delhi, said:

“The FIR against respected journalist Supriya Sharma, lodged by the UP police, is yet another example of the ways in which the UP government has sought to intimidate and suppress the press. The freedom of the press is vital to our democracy and PEN Delhi strongly opposes such a move.”

Supriya Sharma is an award-winning reporter whose work has won accolades around the world. She has received India’s highest journalism awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award, and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Journalists, and has been a Reuter Fellow at Oxford University. Her in-depth reporting from the ground, covering rural India and the country’s vulnerable groups has exposed readers to the reality to which many publications have not paid attention. Naresh Fernandes is a veteran journalist and author who has worked for the Times of India in Mumbai and the Wall Street Journal in New York. He is the author of two books.

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