NEW DELHI ― “When you hear news like this, you feel scared. I thought I was in danger because I was right in the middle of the web, but if the government can pick up a journalist from Delhi and bring him to Lucknow then you know that no one is safe,” said Manoj Kumar Singh, a journalist based in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Singh was referring to Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist, who was arrested for posting a tweet mocking UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and lodged in Lucknow jail over the weekend.
While arresting people over “objectionable” social media posts has become routine in the past five years, Kanojia’s arrest over a taunt suggests that free speech and press freedom is not likely to survive another five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders.
Equally worrying is the silence of the mainstream media.
On Sunday, a day after Kanojia was picked up from his house in Delhi by policemen wearing plain clothes, and moved to Lucknow, most Hindi-language news channels made no mention of his arrest.
In interviews with HuffPost India, a section of UP-based journalists said that Kanojia had no business commenting on Adityanath’s personal life and that it was irresponsible for him to have put out unverified information without seeking the CM’s comment. How was the Adityanath government’s action any worse than West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee arresting a BJP worker for posting a photo-shopped image of her on Facebook, they asked.
“Just like in Gorakphur, the UP and national media has surrendered,” said Singh, who has reported from Adityanath’s bastion for over two decades.
“The media has surrendered,” he repeated.
The “objectionable” tweet in question contained a video of a woman who claimed that she had been video conferencing with the Chief Minister for over a year, and she wanted to discuss marriage with him.
Kanojia added the message, “Ishq chupta nahin chupane se Yogi ji.″
Two more journalists, the owner and editor of Nation Live, a news channel based out of Noida, were arrested for airing the same video and charged not just with defamation, but with “provocation with intent to cause a riot.”
A senior police official said, “This could have led to a possible law and order situation.”
While the journalistic value of sharing the video is debatable, there is nothing here that warrants arrest.
A Live Law report points out that the sections invoked by the UP police ― criminal defamation under Section 500 of the India Penal Code (IPC), damaging a computer system under Section 66 of the Information Technology Act ― do not apply either on procedural or substantive grounds.
Veteran journalist Sharat Pradhan said, “This is very scary. This is total intolerance. They want complete obedience and anyone who dissents is unacceptable to them. They want to crush whatever is left of the independent media.”
Pradhan, who has reported out of Lucknow for over three decades, said journalists, who continue writing and speaking against the present dispensation in UP, are at risk.
When asked to compare the Adityanath’s treatment of journalists as compared to the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party-led governments in UP, Pradhan said that the two regional parties were “feudal” and contemptuous of the press, but the crucial difference was that no one in the past 30 years has been as powerful as the BJP.
In 2003, Pradhan moved the Supreme Court, seeking the removal of Akhand Pratap Singh, a corrupt IAS officer, who served as the chief secretary to Mulayam Singh Yadav. He recalls bureaucrats in the past dispensations haranguing journalists for criticising their political masters, and politicians expressing their displeasure over certain stories, but threats to life and liberty were still the exception rather than the norm.
In the 2019 Press Freedom Index, put out by Reporters Without Borders, India ranked 140 out of 180 countries, dropping two positions since 2018.
In 2013, the year before the BJP came to power at the Centre, India was ranked at 140. In the first Modi government, India went from 140 in 2014 to 133 in 2016, dropping to 138 in 2018.
In this atmosphere, Pradhan said that the real casualties are the younger crop of journalists who might never get a shot at practicing journalism.
“The future is going to be sarkari press release reporting,” he said.
Sunita Aron, another veteran journalist from Lucknow, is of the view that Kanojia’s actions were irresponsible, and that journalists had no business reporting on the private lives of politician unless it had consequences for the public.
Aron, however, said that the Adityanath government had no business arresting Kanojia.
Noting that a press note contesting the woman’s claim would have been sufficient, she said, “This arrest is going too far.”
In February, Jasvir Singh, the IPS officer who told HuffPost India that he had booked Adityanath under the National Security Act in 2002, was suspended.
In March 2017, shortly after Adityanath took over as CM, a woman in Bengaluru was booked for uploading “objectionable” Facebook posts against the CM.
Two days later, a youth in Noida was arrested for posting “objectionable” material and a morphed image of Adityanath on Facebook.
Similar arrests over “objectionable pictures” were made in Varanasi, Ghazipur, Sonbhadra and Bareilly districts.
In May 2017, a man was arrested for creating a fake Facebook account and posting “derogatory content” about Adityanath in Sambhal.
In June 2017, three youths in three separate cases were booked for posting “objectionable material” against Adityanath in Muzaffarnagar.
In July 2018, a youth in Agra was arrested for posting an “objectionable” comment against Adityanath on a Facebook post.
Pervez Parwaz, a resident of Gorakhpur, who had filed a complaint against Adityanath in 2007, accusing him of hate speech, and had pursued the matter till the Supreme Court, was accused of rape and arrested in September, last year.
In November, last year, four Muslim men in Bahraich were booked for posting “derogatory remarks” on Facebook against the chief minister.
In 2017 and 2018, at least 50 people were arrested across India for posts on social media, according to Livemint. “Almost of them are very poor, most are illiterate, over half are Muslims, and many are recent internet users,” its analysis said.
Throwback to Gorakhpur
In December 2017, a video of a journalist touching Adityanath’s feet triggered a furor.
In Gorakhpur, where Adityanath was Member of Parliament (MP) from 1998 to 2017, Singh recalled that journalists lining up to seek Adityanath’s blessings was a common sight.
The culture of “intimidation and communalisation” of the media, which Singh says was gradually entrenched in Gorakhpur, he is now seeing replicated at a statewide level in UP.
“It is the same modus operandi,” he said.
When he worked at a prominent local newspaper in Gorakhpur, Singh recalls reporting that Adityanath did not visit families dying of starvation in 2004-2005. His editor, he said, told him that the MP was not happy about his report, and had dubbed it as false.
In another instance, Singh recalled that his report based on a reply to a Right to Information (RTI) application, which said that the Union Health Ministry, was not planning to build a facility similar to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Gorakhpur (contrary to the then MP’s claim), his newspaper first published the report and then called its own report false.
Journalists, who questioned the establishment in Gorakhpur, he said, were either fired or sidelined.
Singh, who eventually started his own online news portal, said that the media silence in Gorakhpur is deafening.
Recently, Singh said, he was one of the few journalists who ended up reporting the death of 57 cows in six days at a cow shelter in neighbouring Maharajganj.
Demand for the truth is also shrinking, Singh said, adding, “People on Facebook write, ‘You are lying, you are biased, you are spreading hate.’ They say that I’m neither a Hindu nor a Thakur. It is shocking.”