With clenched fists and rousing slogans, hundreds of journalists from different organisations protested at the Press Club of India in New Delhi today, against the arrest of journalists by Uttar Pradesh Police in connection with the sharing of "defamatory" video related to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The protest march was stopped midway by the officials of Delhi Police and para military forces. Condemning the arrest in unison, journalists demanded the release of Prashant Kanojia, Ishika Singh and Anuj Shukla without any further delay.
Sidharth Vardarajan, veteran journalist and founder of The Wire, said that the arbitrary arrests show that the present regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and CM Yogi Adityanath does not acknowledge media freedom and has displayed utter disrespect for the rights enshrined in the Constitution. Talking to NewsClick, Varadrajan said, "Criticism and commentary is part of our job. How can police decide if something amounts to defamation or not. If present situation continues to prevail, no journalist can feel safe in India.”
Senior journalist Neerja Chaudhary too, concurred with Varadrajan. She said, "The government is trying to kill a fly with an AK-47. I think the message with the arrest of freelance journalists is quite clear, that they will silence every voice in criticism. Journalists have been using humour, cartoons and other means for delivering their message. Will they ban cartoons too?"
Also read: Wife of Journalist Prashant Kanojia Moves SC Seeking His Release
However, Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor of the India Today, said the arrest once again makes it clear that the law of criminal defamation should be struck down. He said, "We have seen that the law of criminal defamation is often used in these cases. It should be struck down given its misuse by police. Even Britain, where it originated, has struck down the law. Why are we still using such archaic laws?"
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is set to hear the plea moved by Kanojia’s wife, Jagisha Arora on June 11. The petition filed by Jagisha reads, "The malice is evident from the manner of arrest in violation of mandatory directives of this Court in D.K. Basu’s case as are now incorporated in Chapter 5 of the Code and the addition Section 505 and Section 67 IT Act."
Journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested on Saturday, June 8, by Uttar Pradesh Police for allegedly sharing a video on social media in which a woman claimed that she was constantly conversing with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and wanted to marry him. The arrest created an outrage among the members of civil society and journalists alike.
Condemning the arrest, the Editors’ Guild of India had said, "The police action is high-handed, arbitrary and amounts to an authoritarian misuse of laws." It added that the action was "an effort to intimidate the press, and stifle freedom of expression”.
Legal experts maintain that the sections under which the arrest was made are not sustainable. Kanojia was arrested under Section 66 of the Information Act and has been charged of criminal defamation and making statements causing "public mischief". UP Police later imposed two additional provisions - Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act.
Explaining about legality of the arrest, noted lawyer Manu Sabestian, in his article, said, "It is unfathomable how a statement, whether true or false, about the private life of the Chief Minister can be termed as causing "public mischief" by inciting persons to commit offences against the State or public tranquility."
The report further said, “Section 67, which is mentioned as an after-thought, deals with transmission of obscene materials online. Clearly, this is also not applicable here, as the news item shared by him - a press statement given by the woman before media- cannot be termed "obscene" by any stretch of imagination.”
Senior Advocate Rebecca John too echoed a similar sentiment. She said that Section 500 is related with private complaint and the role of the police is non-existent. Since it’s a private complaint, it’s not only bailable but there’s no question of any arrest too.