NEW DELHI—The Uttar Pradesh police have filed an First Information Report (FIR) against award winning journalist Supriya Sharma, who is presently the Executive Editor of Scroll.in, as well as the ‘Main Chief Editor’ of the same publication.
The FIR has been filed in connection with a news report written by Sharma, who has twice won the Ramnath Goenka award, on Scroll.in about the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on residents of the Domriya village, which was adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018.
The Ramnagar Police station officials in Varanasi district registered the FIR on the basis of a complaint by Mala Devi (28), a resident of the Domria village, who was quoted as saying in the Scroll.in report that she and her kids survived on tea and roti during the lockdown period as her employers stopped paying.
To the police, a prima facie reading of the FIR indicates, Mala Devi denied having said any such thing and instead said that neither she nor her family faced any problems during the lockdown. Further, she also accuses Sharma of mocking her poverty and caste in the article. This had affected her mentally and harmed her reputation in society, the FIR quotes her as saying.
The Domria village is located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi and Sharma’s report quotes some of its residents as saying that, during the lockdown, they did not get ration supplies despite the Uttar Pradesh government announcing a decision to universalise the Public Distribution System (PDS) temporarily.
The police officials have imposed charges under section 3 of The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015, often referred to as the Atrocities act, and Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 269 and 501 in the FIR.
While the charges under section 3 of the Atrocities act refer to at least two punishable offences defined under the law and the IPC sections relate with publishing matter that is ‘known to be defamatory’ (IPC 501) and a negligent action that is “likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life” (IPC 269).
It is unclear how reporting that residents of a village adopted by the Prime Minister did not receive ration during the lockdown and, as a consequence, suffered from hunger is tantamount to ‘negligent action’ that could ‘spread infection’ of a deadly disease or defame anyone.
In its official response to the FIR, Scroll.in said that Mala Devi’s statements were ‘accurately’ reported in the article and that the FIR was an ‘attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown’. It said that it stands by the article.
Reporters Without Borders, an international outfit which tracks the status of press freedom worldwide, condemned the FIR calling it an “attempt to intimidate one of India’s most resilient reporter”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, another international organisation that works on press freedom, also condemned the FIR against Sharma.
“Launching a criminal investigation into a journalist for her work in the Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency is a clear intimidation tactic and sends a chilling message to journalists across the country,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s Senior Asia Researcher. “Uttar Pradesh police should immediately drop the investigation into Supriya Sharma, who has not committed any crime and was simply doing her job as a journalist.”
The FIR against Sharma is only the most recent instance of a journalist being targeted by a government. According to a recent report titled ‘India: Media’s Crackdown during COVID-19 Lockdown’ prepared by the ‘Rights and Risks Analysis Group’, at least 55 journalists were targeted in different ways during the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, with the state of Uttar Pradesh targeting the highest number of journalists (11).
Before Sharma, the Uttar Pradesh police recently grabbed headlines for registering an FIR against Siddharth Varadarajan, co-founder of online news portal The Wire.