On the evening of March 29, journalist Om Sharma went . He stood in the middle of a road in Baddi, an industrial town in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district, and pointed his camera towards dozens of migrant workers crouched by the roadside.
“These people have come out on the roads because they haven’t eaten in two or three days. The administration doesn’t have adequate arrangements” said Sharma, a reporter with the local daily Divya Himachal who had been tipped off about the roadside protest by a police constable. “I request local charitable organisations to step forward and help out these people.”
Within 15 minutes, police officers and local politicians reached the spot and asked the workers to end the “drama” and return to their homes. “We’ll make sure the food reaches you. Give us some time. On the behalf of the administration, I assure you that food will reach your homes,” declared a Bharatiya Janata Party councillor, as Sharma’s camera continued to roll.
At one point in the video, the councillor turned to Sharma and claimed that one of the protesting migrants had food at home — the worker merely hadn’t received the fresh stock of rations. “They are only complaining because they had not received a new batch of rations, unlike a neighbouring migrant colony,” he argued. The worker shot back: “If we had rations, why would we be on the road?”
The video garnered attention on Facebook, with over 1,500 shares. Later that day, the Baddi police slapped an FIR on Sharma, calling his video “sensational/fake news on social media”. The FIR was announced on WhatsApp through a message by Baddi’s superintendent of police, Rohit Malpani, who claimed that the “District Administration [is] making all arrangements for [the] stay of homeless people, their food and their well being. Food/ration being liberally distributed by different teams.”
Sharma was booked under Article 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which punishes false warning, and four sections of the Indian Penal Code: 182 (false information), 188 (disobedience to a public servant’s order), 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of a dangerous disease,) and 336 (endangering life or personal safety of others).
Sharma, 38, told Newslaundry that this was the first FIR ever filed against him in his 16 years in journalism. “I did a Facebook live because the paper had paused circulation after the lockdown. I couldn’t file a report,” he said.
But this was only the first of three FIRs against Sharma during the lockdown, and his case is not unique.
Jagat Bains, a reporter with News18 Himachal in nearby Nalagarh, also has three FIRs to his name in the past 50 days. In the neighbouring district of Mandi, journalist Ashwani Saini has been booked five times since the lockdown. Vishal Anand in Dalhousie, who is associated with a national news channel, has two FIRs on him. In Manali, Punjab Kesari’s Somdiv Sharma was booked by the police after he reported on the administration’s laxity in quarantining interstate travelers. Dainik Bhaskar’s Gauri Shankar in Kullu had a close call with an FIR after his story on famished migrant workers, accused of being “fake news” by the local sub-divisional magistrate, was proven entirely true.
The second FIR against Sharma came on April 26, when he shared a report from the Hindi daily Amar Ujala on Facebook. It claimed that the government had ordered businesses to close down for a few months in case any employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The report was taken down from the Amar Ujala website after the government rubbished its claim in a . An FIR was filed against Sharma for simply sharing the article. He was booked under Sections 182 and 188 of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act.
The third FIR was filed a day later, on April 27. On April 23, Solan’s district magistrate had announced curfew relaxations between 8 am and 11 am in the industrial area covering three subdivisions of Baddi, Barotiwala and Nalagarh (locally known as BBN). When shops raised shutters on April 24, the local police forcefully shut them down. The following day, the sub-divisional magistrate clarified that only shops selling essential items can open during the relaxation hours.
Sharma took to Facebook and criticised the local administration for the confusion, asking if it thought people were “kites” that can be “swerved in any direction”. The administration decided to book him for these posts three days later, under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Again, the news of the FIR was broken by the superintendent of police on a WhatsApp group that included local police officers and journalists. The SP also shared Sharma’s posts on the group.
Sharma believes the surfeit of FIRs stems from the administration’s desperation to suppress reporting on the failures of its Covid-19 strategy. “They wouldn’t do this before the lockdown,” he said. “But now if you write two words critical of them, you’ll have an FIR on you.”
He added: “Since they filed the FIRs, my curfew pass was turned down. Now only government-accredited journalists are able to report on the ground in BBN. I stay at home these days.”
‘Clear attempt to suppress the truth’
Like Sharma, Jagat Bains, 34, of the neighbouring Nalagarh subdivision, also carries the weight of three FIRs. All three were lodged after Bains, a stringer for News18 Himachal, reported on the gaping holes in the government’s lockdown strategy.
The first FIR came in the first week of the lockdown on March 30, when Bains and other local reporters a video report on how rations were not reaching migrant workers in parts of Nalagarh. Bains learnt of the FIR against him on April 1, registered for “spreading rumours” about a problem that the local administration said did not exist. The police revoked Bains’s curfew pass the next day.
“This happened again on April 25, when I received a call from Sallewal village in Nalagarh. The migrant workers there told me they had been denied rations by a government supplier,” Bains told Newslaundry. When he reached the village and began a , a female migrant worker folded her hands and told Bains that the workers had come out on the road because they did not have food. The local officials, another worker revealed, simply asked them to contact other officials and there was no solution in sight.
The report had impact and rations were supplied to the workers the next day. The local administration told Bains that he should report on this too, and he .
But when he returned from work that evening, Bains was perplexed to learn that two FIRs had been lodged against him the previous day. The first one concerned his report from Sallewal, where the police accused him of assembling a crowd for his live video. The FIR even quoted Bains criticising the administration in the video. He was charged under Sections 188, 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code.
The second FIR was filed for a report Bains did on April 23, where he had on private vehicles mysteriously crossing the sealed borders in Baddi subdivision on the night of April 22. The district commissioner had told News18 Himachal that tough action would be taken against those behind the violation. Instead, Bains was once again booked under IPC Sections 188, 269 and 270. The FIR said: “Press reporter Bains circulated videos of the administration without any reason. He also violated lockdown guidelines.”
“With the kind of manpower the government has, it would’ve been worthwhile to use it to govern better rather than lodge FIRs against us,” Bains told Newslaundry. “This is harassment and it brought mental distress with it. I was asked to appear at the Nalagarh police station with witnesses thrice to secure my bail. I had to wait a couple of hours on all occasions.”
Now that he has FIRs registered against him, Bains’s curfew pass has not been renewed by the local authorities. “I still go out to report when people call me,” he said, “at my own risk.”
“It is a clear attempt to suppress the truth,” said Bhanu Verma, journalist and president of the Solan District Journalist Association and Press Club. “The desperation to file FIRs stems from the fact that Himachal Pradesh was inching slowly towards the green zone. Then there was a blast and now we have 18 cases with three dead. The chief minister is not happy. But if we report on it, an FIR is all they have to rein us in.”
Newslaundry reached out to BBN sub-divisional magistrate Prashant Deshta and Baddi SP Rohit Malpani for this story but did not receive any response. The District PRO’s office in Solan declined to comment on the matter. NK Sharma, the additional superintendent of police in Baddi, gave Newslaundry an appointment for a comment but declined it later.
Five FIRs since the lockdown began
In the neighbouring district of Mandi, five FIRs have been registered against journalist Ashwani Saini, 44, since the lockdown began. Saini has worked at Dainik Jagran and Punjab Kesari, and now produces video reports for the Facebook page Mandi Live and freelances for Jagran.
Like Sharma and Bains, Saini was under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act on April 8, for reporting on the failure of the administration to supply rations to migrant workers in Bharajwanoo village in the Sundernagar subdivision. In videos he shot for Mandi Live, workers told Saini that they had not received a second round of rations during the lockdown.
The FIR was filed by Rahul Chauhan, the Sundernagar sub-divisional magistrate, who accused Saini of spreading “fake news”. Saini shot off letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, accusing Chauhan of trying to “gag the press”.
On April 13, Saini was with three more FIRs when he and another reporter from Divya Himachal did on brick kilns in Sundernagar operating despite the lockdown. Migrant workers, who had not received rations from the authorities, were asked to work at the kilns by local contractors. Following Saini’s reports, the police stopped the work at the kilns and filed FIRs against the kiln owners.
“The kiln owners then accused us of harassing and misbehaving with the migrant workers,” Saini told Newslaundry. “The police did not give it any thought and filed three FIRs against us. We’ve been booked under IPC Sections 451, 504, 506 and 188.”
In what Saini calls a final act of intimidation, his car was by the local police on April 14. “We were told that it was a curfew violation. It can’t be because the state government has exempted print, electronic and social media journalists from curfew restrictions through an order on March 23, 2020. They want to deter me from traveling and reporting,” Saini explained.
He was then booked for the fifth time under IPC Section 188, and Sections 192 and 196 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. He secured his car from the police almost a month later on May 11.
Newslaundry reached out to sub-divisional magistrate Chauhan to ask about the FIRs against Saini. “Ashwini Saini is not a journalist. I’ve made an enquiry into this matter,” Chauhan said. “He’s not authorised by the government.”
When asked whether the government can really authorise who is and isn’t a journalist, Chauhan said he did not want to comment further and directed this reporter to Sachin Sangar, the district public relations officer.
Sangar told Newslaundry that Saini’s report on April 7 — the basis of the first FIR — contained invalid claims, specifically that the rations had not reached Bharajwanoo village. When told about workers in Saini’s reports admitting to not getting rations, Sangar said they might have said it because they wanted to appear on TV.
“When we talked to them later, they said they did receive rations a week before,” Sangar said.
Did he think Saini’s brick kiln stories were fake? Sangar said they are being investigated. He explained that seizing Saini’s car was a decision contingent on the local administration’s curfew policy. “There was a statewide order to exempt media from the curfew but districts were left to carve out their own strategies in the matter,” he said.
FIRs against journalists for reporting ration shortages in Himachal Pradesh fall into a sinister pattern. Sharma, Bains and Saini have borne the brunt of it. I asked Sangar if this was a calculated attack on press freedom in the state to curtail critical reporting. “That would be your perspective,” he said. “During a disaster, one has to be a little patient about these things. The administration might have perceived them [Saini’s reports] as material that was creating unrest.”
In mid-April, journalist Vishal Anand, 49, was accused of misrepresentation and booked by the local authorities in Dalhousie, who claimed he used pictures of the town’s Gandhi Chowk for a story on Covid-19 in Chamba district. Anand told Newslaundry that the basis was specious, even motivated, because Dalhousie falls in Chamba district.
Soon after his first FIR, he told a that lodging such complaints only indicated that “some officials are misusing power and trying to intimidate journalists,” adding that he would move the high court with the actual facts. “This is the first time in my 18 years in journalism that an FIR has been filed against me,” he pointed out.
But as the state of affairs in Himachal Pradesh would have it, Anand was booked for this comment too.
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