Karnataka has a history of going after the freedom of the press. The latest target is Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of the Kannada daily Vishwavani, and his colleague for publishing “derogatory remarks” about Nikhil Kumaraswamy, the son of Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy.
An FIR was filed against Bhat and a staff reporter (who does not want to be named) on May 26 by Pradeep Kumar, a Janata Dal (Secular) official, about an article published on May 25 in Vishwavani which reported that Nikhil Kumaraswamy allegedly created a commotion at a Mysuru hotel after losing the Lok Sabha elections. The article talked about tiffs between Nikhil, his father, and his grandfather, former prime minister HD Deve Gowda.
In the last few months, over 14 journalists have been targeted by the government. They all invited the wrath of the government for writing articles against the state’s “first family” or being instrumental in reporting on such information. The government used the police to clamp down on the media by filing complaints, generating FIRs, and having the journalists arrested.
In Bhat’s case, he says the FIR was lodged before asking him for his version. Vishwavani had also reported on Nikhil’s rebuttal to their article. Speaking to Newslaundry, Bhat says, “The government has not followed the conventional method of sending a rejoinder to the publication about any errors made. Instead, they are filing defamation cases and getting journalists arrested. The article published in Vishwavani was about the CM’s son visiting his grandfather following his poll defeat in Mandya and the heated exchange that followed. The report was an account narrated by my sources, and is credible.”
He argues that the hasty way in which the FIR was lodged by a JD(S) party member and the absence of an official rejoinder from the government makes it evident that these are tactics to muzzle the media.
How events unfolded
On May 25, Vishwavani reported that Nikhil met Deve Gowda and complained about being defeated in the elections by Sumalatha Ambareesh, the wife of late Kannada actor Ambareesh, in Mandya, which is considered to be a JD(S) stronghold. The heated exchange reportedly took place in the presence of some party leaders and family members.
On May 26, SP Pradeep Kumar, the chief of the JD(S) legal cell, filed an FIR with the Sriramapuram Police against Bhat and his colleague under Sections 499, 500 and 501 (defamation), 504 (intentional insult), 506 (criminal intimidation), 420 (cheating), 406 (criminal breach of trust), and 468 (forgery) of the Indian Penal Code. The JD(S) legal cell claimed the article was intended to defame Nikhil and his family. They also alleged that Vishwavani carried out a vilification campaign against the government.
Bhat says, “All the sections under which an FIR was filed against my colleague and I are not relevant to the case. Section 268 carries a seven-year jail term, Section 420 is for cheating and Section 468 is for forgery. The JD(S) legal cell did this to deter journalists. The state has slipped into an FIR culture and the procedure of law has been conveniently bent to suit the political powers that be. I will fight the case.”
Legal expert SP Chengappa said, “In such instances only defamation cases can be filed against the media. I do not understand how or why these multiple sections can be applied to Bhat’s case.”
JD(S) MLAs in Mandya and Mysuru remained tight-lipped about the alleged incident. However, a portion of the local media and journalists’ associations and unions have condemned the action. In a letter to the chief minister, Shivanand Tagadooru, president of the Karnataka Union of Working Journalists, wrote, “The police complaint against the editor is highly unnecessary, it reeked of hatred and intolerance towards the media. The CM should have asked the editor and the management of the paper to correct the news and carry a rejoinder. If there was false news intended to defame the CM that could invite such police action under relevant sections.”
Tagadoor also wrote: “In the past when journalists faced such problems, the CM had acted more graciously and in a friendly manner. I doubt if this incident was even brought to your notice by your advisers. Please try to examine it objectively and take necessary steps. Hatred and vindictive action will not augur well for the healthy relationship between the media and the government in a democracy.”
In 2008, BV Seetharam, editor of the Karavali Ale group in Mangaluru, had been subjected to similar charges, drawing parallels to the case against Bhat. Seetharam tells Newslaundry: “In defamation cases, the state has no role to play, the present government has misused the provisions of law by political arm-twisting of the police. In an ideal situation, Nikhil should have filed either a civil or criminal case for defamation or libel or slander. Instead, a person who has no connection to the issue has filed an FIR and the police acted on it.”
The Srirampuram Police told Newslaundry a complaint has been lodged against Bhat and his colleague, and they are investigating it as required. Sources in the JD(S) say the CM may not have the editor arrested, but he wants to show journalists his political power and send out a warning to not report on his family.
The case has also been trending across social media platforms with the hashtag #EmergencyinKarnataka. Talks are on that the Indian Union of Working Journalists will also take up the issue with the Karnataka government.
(The author is a Mangaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)