NHRC acts on complaint of journalists being targeted amid lockdown in Varanasi

21 July 2020
Media personnel protest an alleged attack on two journalists by police personnel, outside the police headquarters in Delhi, in March 2018. In Varanasi, the BJP-led administration has taken action against several journalists who have reported on governance failures during the coronavirus lockdown.
Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
Media personnel protest an alleged attack on two journalists by police personnel, outside the police headquarters in Delhi, in March 2018. In Varanasi, the BJP-led administration has taken action against several journalists who have reported on governance failures during the coronavirus lockdown.
Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

On 22 June, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the chief secretary of Lucknow regarding a complaint accusing the Uttar Pradesh administration of cracking down on a journalist for reporting unflattering news. On 26 March, Vijay Vineet and Manish Mishra, both journalists with the Hindi paper Jansandesh Times, published a report about the dire straits of villages in Varanasi district, where members of the Musahar community, a Dalit sub-caste, reside. In Koiripur village, Musahar children were compelled to eat seeds from wild grass to keep from starving, they reported.

The Musahar families in the village had been unable to procure food owing to the sudden announcement of the national lockdown. That same day, Vineet received a notice from Kaushal Raj Sharma, the district magistrate of Varanasi. In it, Sharma had termed the article “false,” adding that it was a “sickening attempt to stigmatise the Musahar families.” He demanded that the report be rescinded and that the newspaper issue an apology in the following day’s edition, adding that an inquiry would be launched if this was not done.

The next day, a human-rights activist named Lenin Raghuvanshi filed a complaint with the NHRC regarding Vineet’s case. Raghuvanshi said Sharma’s notice was a “threat” to journalists. “The administration’s attitude is such that no journalist or newspaper will publish ground realities,” the activist wrote. In its notice, the NHRC asked the chief secretary of Lucknow to take appropriate action on the issue in eight weeks, and to inform the body of its action.

The notice issued to Vineet and the editor of Jansandesh Times appears to fall into a pattern in Varanasi, where the UP administration and police, under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister Adityanath, has been acting against journalists publishing news that suggests any governance failures during the coronavirus lockdown. In mid June, the Uttar Pradesh police had registered a first information report against the journalist Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of Scroll, for a report on the impact of the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Reporting from a village the prime minister Narendra Modi adopted in Varanasi—the constituency from which he was elected to the Lok Sabha—Sharma had found that its residents were struggling to find food during the lockdown. The police registered an FIR on the basis of a complaint by a resident whom Sharma had interviewed, who claimed that she had been misrepresented in the article. The FIR charged the journalist with, among other things, printing defamatory material and of offences under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

On 10 July, the Press Council of India released a statement taking “suo-motu cognizance regarding alleged targeting of journalists during the COVID-19 lockdown period in the State of Uttar Pradesh.” It noted that an FIR had been filed against four journalists in the state’s Bhadohi district, and also that a notice had been issued to Vineet for “reporting on issues that concerns the plights of people during the lockdown period.” The statement called for comments from the UP government.

Sunil Kashyap is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 press freedom Varanasi Musahar
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