Criminalising free-speech

Kashmir Times. Dated: 6/11/2019 12:19:32 PM

The arrests of three journalists in UP are unjustified and defy the constitutional provisions

The arrests of three journalists in Uttar Pradesh for circulation of an 'objectionable' video and a social media post mocking at UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath is a shocking case of use of brute power to crackdown on anybody taking a dig at those in power. In India, journalists are increasingly becoming victims of arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, and harassment. The latest arrests need to be seen in the light of this larger picture that is extremely damaging for Indian democracy. While the duo Ishika Singh and Anuj Shukla who work with a television channel and aired the video showing a woman making claims of being in a relationship with Adityanath, the Delhi-based freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia was picked up from his Delhi home by the UP police and taken to Lucknow by "policemen in civil clothes". If indeed the video in circulation was false, defamatory and mischievous, as is being officially claimed, there's a due process available to deal with content that's allegedly defamatory. But arrests for airing the video and sharing it are a clear violation of that process and a reflection of witch-hunting against journalists which is becoming frequent across the country. The arrests of the three journalists once again raise major concerns over the blatant subversion of the law enforcement system and selective abuse of laws to crush free speech. Press freedom has been recognised as part of freedom of speech and expression under the Constitution. The action is a serious clampdown on not just their fundamental rights but also the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression. It is also an indicator that the UP government is intolerant of dissent to the extent that it wants to criminalise the dissenters.
While journalists should conduct themselves responsibly, this witch-hunting by invoking laws disproportionately and in selective cases is uncalled for. It is imperative that the criminal provisions of the defamation law should be taken off the statute books. The FIR against the three is registered under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66A of the Information Technology Act alleging that they made defamatory comments against Yogi Adityanath to malign his image. The country's apex court, few years ago, had struck down as unconstitutional Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which had been repeatedly misused to launch witch-hunts against ordinary people who had spoken online against the powerful. The term "objectionable", which the UP Police has used to justify the arrests is vague and legally incorrect. As an after-thought, in the face of criticism, the UP police issued a statement adding two more legal provisions against the journalist arrested for his social media post and accusing him of making "obscene comments" and "spreading rumours". Neither do these charges figure in the original FIR, nor does the social media post in question satisfy any of these claims being made. While such victimization of journalists by the law-keepers and those in power is shameful, what is equally worrying is the hypocrisy and double standards of the media and the ruling party BJP, both in power in Uttar Pradesh and at the Centre. While a month ago, the BJP and its loyalist media was up in arms against the unjustified arrest of a BJP worker for posting a social media post lampooning Mamta Banerjee, there is absolute indifference to this particular case. Though several media associations have vehemently condemned the UP arrests, a predominant and powerful section of the media in the country is silent on this issue.



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