New Delhi: The two Delhi-based women journalists, who were arrested over their social media posts on the recent communal incidents in Tripura on Sunday, were on Monday ordered to be released on bail by a magistrate's court, PTI reported from Agartala.
Earlier in the day, the detention of the two journalists from HW News, who had gone there for on a reporting assignment, by the Tripura Police sparked outrage with Editors Guild of India, Digipub Foundation, Delhi Union of Journalists, Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists and Indian Women’s Press Corp condemning the detention.
The Digipub News India Foundation, an association of 11 digital news organisations, has strongly condemned the detention of two HW News Network journalists by the Assam Police, a day after they were booked by Tripura Police on a complaint by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
"Digipub strongly condemns the harassment of the two journalists by the Tripura Police who invaded their privacy by showing up at their hotel and demanding their Aadhaar numbers and transport details, ostensibly to provide "security", a contention that soon turned out to be false. This is not only a violation of the freedom of the press but also a breach of the fundamental right to privacy," the foundation said in a statement.
Samridhhi Sakunia, 21, and Swarna Jha, 25, Delhi-based reporters with HW News Network, an independent media organisation, were reporting on the Tripura violence when the Assam Police detained them at the Neelam Bazaar police station in Karimganj district on Sunday, November 14.
Karimganj SP Lucky Chauhan said, “We got a written request from Tripura police, specifically Kakraban police station in Gomati district in Tripura. They said these two individuals were required in connection with a case in Gomati and that they passed through your jurisdiction, so please detain them since we need them for an investigation. We detained them and the Tripura police team arrived at 5.30 pm. We are now in the process of handing them over to the Tripura police. We haven’t arrested anyone.”
The Tripura police have kept Sakunia and Jha at their hotel lobby in Dharmanagar in North Tripura district. Both have been asked to "visit the Fatikroy police station with their lawyers on November 21."
Sakunia, who spoke to Newslaundry over the phone, claimed that they were surrounded by 15 police officers and central armed police forces personnel, of which three were women.
The Tripura Police's FIR against Sakunia and Jha was registered on a complaint by the VHP, "quoting sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153A (Provocation with intent to cause riot) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, for reporting the aftermath of attacks on Muslims in the state."
The journalists had on Friday reported on a mosque that was torched in Tripura's Gomati district. On Saturday, they had reached Dharmanagar "to report on the alleged targeting of another mosque and properties owned by Muslims in Panisagar subdivision, the region hit by violence spurred during a VHP rally on October 26."
Speaking to NewsClick, Ganesh Jagtap, Managing Director, HW News Network, said, "As of now, there have been two FIRs against two of our correspondents who were covering Tripura. One of the FIRs is in Kakraban Police station in the Gomti district."
"The police statements talk about their personal tweets. As an organisation, we are providing complete legal support. The senior-most advocate from Agartala, Pijush Biswas, will be personally appearing today in the court where our journalists would be produced before the magistrate. We are pressing for their bail with immediate relief since they have been detained," Jagtap further said.
The Editors Guild India (EGI) and Indian Women's Press Corps (IWPC) have also condemned this police action. "Editors Guild condemns this action and demands their immediate release and restoration of their freedom to travel," the EGI said in a statement.
"We understand that the two women journalists, Ms Sakuni and Ms Jha, are to be taken back to Tripura for questioning," the IWPC said, adding, "We demand that they be released immediately and be allowed to do their job."
This is not the first instance that Tripura Police have initiated action against people who have spoken out against communal violence in Tripura. Earlier this month, the police had booked "102 social media account holders under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on criminal conspiracy and forgery charges."
The Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) have welcomed the grant of bail to both the women journalists. At the same time, the BUJ and DUJ have demanded that "all cases foisted on journalists and civil society activists for their reportage or social media posts be withdrawn forthwith. The intimidatory tactics by Tripura police must stop."
The journalists' associations, in a joint statement, have also called out Tripura Police for earlier registering cases against NewsClick’s senior editor Shyam Meera Singh, Maktoob Media’s Meer Faisal, freelance journalists Sartaj Alam and Arif Shah and London-based monthly newspaper Byline Times’s global correspondent C.J. Werleman, using similar tactics of intimidation to silence every voice that spoke against the communal violence in Tripura.
"The jittery action of the Tripura police to censor and silence information from the ground bodes ill for a democracy. These efforts to curb the freedom of journalists to collect and disseminate information must be stiffly resisted. All over the country, we are witnessing brutal attempts to criminalise journalists who are engaged in the pursuit of their legitimate professional duties," the statement by the BUJ and DUJ added.
Read the full Digipub release below.
DIGIPUB News India Foundation condemns in the strongest terms the sustained pattern of intimidation against journalists of HW News Network.
An FIR has been filed against journalists Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha by the Tripura Police on a complaint by the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad), quoting sections
120B (criminal conspiracy),153A (Provocation with intent to cause riot) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, for reporting the aftermath of attacks on Muslims in the state.
Sakunia said the police arrived at their hotel at around 10.30 pm on 13 November 2021 and were served the FIR copy at around 5.30 am the next morning. They were not allowed to move out until 9 AM on 14 November 2021, despite cooperating with the police. About 16-17 police personnel were deployed outside their hotel in Dharmanagar in north Tripura district.
The journalists were released later on 14 November and have been asked to be present at the Fatikroy police station on November 21.
Digipub strongly condemns the harassment of the two journalists by the Tripura Police who invaded their privacy by showing up at their hotel and demanding their Aadhaar numbers and transport details, ostensibly to provide "security", a contention that soon turned out to be false. This is not only a violation of the freedom of the press but also a breach of the fundamental right to privacy.
This is not the first time that journalists have been intimidated for doing their jobs in this country. Many journalists face criminal investigations, arrest and jail terms, as India faces a sharp degradation in press freedom.
In a country where the media are considered the fourth pillar of democracy, journalists must be allowed to hold the government to account without fear of intimidation and punitive action.