Freelancers and reporters with local media organisations have been booked, served notices and questioned for doing stories that show the Uttar Pradesh government in unflattering light.
Last month, the Uttar Pradesh police registered an FIR against Supriya Sharma, executive editor of Scroll, for reporting on the misery India’s coronavirus lockdown had caused in a Varanasi village adopted by prime minister Narendra Modi. In April, Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the Wire, was booked for erroneously attributing a remark to chief minister Adityanath. A year ago, Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist based in Delhi, was arrested for defaming Adityanath on Twitter.
While the hounding of these prominent journalists justifiably sparked outrage, the plight of local journalists who have been suffering at the hands of Uttar Pradesh’s BJP government has gone largely unreported.
On April 12, Sachin Rawat reported on the death of an elderly man who was home quarantined at Barnapur in Barabanki. He reported that it was only after neighbours had complained of foul smell emanating from the hut of the 82-year-old man, who had recently returned from Gujarat and was staying alone, that the authorities noticed his death. For his story, Rawat spoke to the Barnapur village head’s husband and an ASHA worker who had checked up on the elderly man six days before his body was found. The report was carried by several newspapers and a few TV channels.
Rawat, who started out in journalism over four years ago, is a stringer, as the army of journalists that Big Media relies on to report from outside major cities are known in newsrooms. He gets around Rs 50 per “input” such as a byte or a visual used in a story.
On April 15, Rawat got a notice from Barabanki’s sub divisional magistrate denouncing his story as “completely wrong” and “baseless without any evidence”. The notice, which was copied to news aggregators such as DailyHunt and OneIndia, objected that:
The story only quoted the village head’s husband and an ASHA worker, neither of whom were authorised to speak on such matters. Why did the reporter not reach out to the district officials for comment on a “sensitive issue” such as a suspected Covid-19 death.
According to the superintendent of the nearest community health centre and the district’s deputy chief medical officer, the old man’s body neither had any visible marks nor was it infesting with worms.
On April 6, 2020, a medical team had visited the man’s hut and advised him to stay indoors as long as the lockdown was in place even though his prescribed period of home quarantine had ended.
His death was reported after the home quarantine period had technically ended.
Since Rawat had asked “leading questions” to “corona warriors”, in this case the ASHA worker, the notice alleged, his report was “rumour mongering”.
The notice was sent under the Uttar Pradesh Epidemic Disease Covid-19 Regulations 2020. According to Section 6 of the rules, nobody “will use print, electronic or social media for information regarding Covid-19 without prior permission” of the department of medical health and welfare. The notice also invoked Indian penal code provisions related to “disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant” as well as the National Disaster Management Act sections punishing “obstruction”, “false claim” and “false warning”.
Asked about this, Rawat told Newslaundry, “The administration took action against me as the story exposed the authorities and highlighted their carelessness.”
He added, “It’s quite common in Uttar Pradesh these days that cases are being filed against journalists. We feel pressured, yet are trying to show the truth. That’s why we have to face such consequences. We feel scared because of all this.”
Responding to the SDM’s notice, Rawat clarified that the village head’s husband as well as the ASHA worker had spoken to him on camera and that he had contacted the chief medical officer for comment on the old man’s death. The SDM decided not to pursue the matter further.
It isn’t the state’s wrath alone that stringers such as Rawat have to deal with, they must also contend with precarious livelihoods. Rawat hasn’t been paid his dues for any of his stories over the last six months.
“When I step out to cover a story, Rs 200 is spent just on petrol. Then these things happen which frankly I consider as an award,” he said.
Still, he ploughs on. His WhatsApp status, in Hindi, goes: “Truth is Unsettling.”
The local journalists may be getting more notices for reporting on the coronavirus outbreak, but they have been under the UP government’s lens from well before the pandemic hit.
On January 24, 2020, Razi Siddiqui, then a correspondent with the local TV news channel Khabrein Abhi Tak, received a notice from Adarsh Singh, Barabanki’s district magistrate. Siddiqui, a journalist for over five years, had reported about a family that was living in a toilet at Akanpur village, which had been declared Open Defecation Free under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Khabrein Abhi Tak wasn’t the only media outlet to cover the story. The news agency ANI carried visuals of the toilet seat cemented over and turned into a kitchen, while some media outlets quoted the head of the family, Ram Prakash, as saying that they were forced to live in the toilet for want of a house.
Terming his story “fake” and “sponsored”, the notice informed Siddiqui that an inquiry by the Block Development Officer had found that Ram Prakash was allotted a house under the Indira Awas Yojana in 2005-06. It was a “three-room pucca house”, but his family was now staying near their field “to protect the crops from any damage”.
When the IAY house was allotted, it turns out, Ram Prakash lived in a joint family with his brothers. He moved out subsequently. And once the toilet was constructed, his family turned it into a kitchen.
Now, since Ram Prakash owned a motorcycle, the notice served on Siddiqui noted, he wasn’t eligible for any housing scheme for people living Below the Poverty Line. The notice, however, didn’t address the central point of the story: that Ram Prakash’s family had set up their kitchen in a Swachh Bharat toilet and were still living in it.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Siddiqui said, “I have got two notices for my stories so far. In this story our intention was to push the BDO or sarpanch to take some action.”
The notice was withdrawn, Siddiqui said, after a group of local journalists apprised the district magistrate of the facts related to the story.
In April, he was served another notice, for a story on Barabanki’s first coronavirus case. The story was carried by the TV channel Global Bharat, where Siddiqui is now employed. On April 6, the district magistrate had told the press that the infected person had “returned from Delhi and participated in Tablighi Jamaat’s congregation in Nizamuddin”.
But Siddiqui reported, on the basis of a letter by a senior police official, that while the infected person had been working in the national capital as an electrician, he had “no direct link” with the congregation. He wasn’t the only reporter to question the man’s Tablighi connection. On April 10, the Indian Express quoted the electrician’s father as saying, “My son lives in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and he has never attended any Tablighi Jamaat meeting.”
Yet, the notice trashed Siddiqui’s report as being “fabricated” and “based on distorted facts”. It claimed that the Barabanki administration had a list of people who had been identified, from their call records, as having attended the congregation, and the electrician was on it.
Invoking the UP Epidemic Disease Covid-19 Regulations 2020 and the National Disaster Management Act, the notice asked Siddiqui and Global Bharat to delete the report within 24 hours. The channel complied. “The YouTube clip is no longer available. It was removed by the channel owing to some kind of pressure,” Siddiqui said.
Such notices are unlikely to stand scrutiny by higher courts, said Aman Khan, a lawyer with the Human Rights and Law Network in Delhi. “The legal validity of these notices can be challenged as they are ultra vires of Article 19(1)A of the constitution which ensures the right to freedom of speech and expression.”
As for the invoking of the National Disaster Management Act, Aman said, “Journalists are usually outside the purview of this. Ideally, an FIR should be filed instead of using discretionary power, that of asking a media organisation to delete a story, or offer a public apology.”
Whatever their legal standing, such notices make the journalists who receive them suffer.
Sarfaraz Warsi, a freelance journalist in Barabanki, has received three notices so far. One was for the same story about the death of the old man at Barnapur published in the daily Dainik Bhaskar. The second was for a report about schoolchildren sitting with umbrellas inside the classroom because the roof leaked. The third was a video report for the news channel NDTV about 14 cows found dead in a village.
For even a journalist with 14 years in the field, being hauled up for his work by the state is dispiriting. “We put in a lot of effort in getting these stories,” said Sarfaraz, who usually gets about Rs 2,000 per story.
UP’s crackdown on local journalists isn’t restricted to Barabanki, it’s a statewide problem. In May, Manish Pandey, a journalist for 11 years in the capital Lucknow, was interrogated by the police for reporting about the poor quality of a PPE kit for medical personnel fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Pandey was a deputy editor with the TV news channel News One India at the time. The story was based on a letter by the director general of medical education admitting that the PPE kit was not of good quality. As Newslaundry reported, Pandey was asked to reveal the “source” who had leaked the letter to him.
“I had to leave my job after this story,” he said.
In Fatehpur district, journalists had to resort to Jal Satyagraha last month after the police booked two of them for reporting stories critical of the administration. Vivek Mishra, a journalist with Dainik Bhaskar, was booked for a December 2019 story on dysfunctional cow shelters in the district, Ajay Singh Bhadauria, president of the District Journalists’ Association, was hauled up for tweeting that a community kitchen in Vijaypur area had shut down.
“May 30 is celebrated as Hindi Journalism Day,” said Bhadauria, a journalist for 20 years. “We celebrated it as a Black Day.”
Newslaundry reached out to Shalabh Mani Tripathi, the media adviser to the chief minister, to ask about the hounding of the local journalists, only to be told to contact the administrations of the districts where the reporters were based. Newslaundry then called and sent messages to Adarsh Singh, Sanjeev Singh and Abhishek Prakash – the district magistrates, respectively, of Barabanki, Fatehpur and Lucknow – seeking comments on the actions they have taken against local journalists. None of them responded. This story will be updated if a response is received.
Akanksha Kumar is an independent journalist. Martand Singh is a reporter based in Lucknow.
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