4PM has been vocal in its criticism of the BJP.
Since 2017, Sanjay Sharma, the editor in chief of 4PM, Lucknow’s only evening daily, has allegedly been “targeted” by the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh. This includes the suspension of government ads, raids on Sharma’s office, and threats and intimidatory tactics.
Published in Hindi, 4PM was founded in 2013 and reports on crime and politics across Uttar Pradesh. With 12 staffers in total, it’s one of the few newspapers in the state that takes on the Adityanath government.
However, local journalists told Newslaundry Sharma was once “close” to the Samajwadi Party.
Sharma took over as editor-in-chief of 4PM in 2013 after a three-decade career in journalism, including stints at Rashtriya Sahara, ETV and Star News. He showed Newslaundry over 50 screenshots of the newspaper’s front page from the last four years as an example of how the newspaper tries to hold the government accountable.
In August 2018, for instance, when an SUV got stuck in a sinkhole on the Agra-Lucknow expressway, 4PM’s investigation found that the responsibility for the construction of the expressway lay with PNC Infratech, owned by the brother of the BJP mayor of Agra. The newspaper questioned the state government on why the expressway, two years after it was built, was not being maintained.
In June the same year, 4PM ran a front-page story on a Lucknow resident who was allegedly solicited for a bribe of Rs 25 lakh by chief minister Adityanath’s principal secretary. In June 2017, 4PM published “exclusive” excerpts from letters written by an IAS officer Bhawani Singh about alleged corruption under IAS officer Renuka Kumar, posted in the women’s welfare department.
While this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 4PM’s coverage, Sharma explained that his troubles began in 2017 when he criticised the Adityanath government’s decision to set up “anti Romeo squads” to curb crimes against women.
Three months later, on July 16, a group of men entered the newspaper’s office in Lucknow’s Gomti Nagar. Sharma claimed they verbally abused his employees and “misbehaved” with female staffers. In a police complaint, he attributed it to “recent reportage by the newspaper”. Newslaundry does not know what happened with the complaint; three persons were arrested but later released on bail.
On August 26, 2019, Sharma received a notice from the economic offences wing which directed him to appear at its office. The investigating agency had allegedly received a letter claiming that Sharma had accumulated wealth disproportionate to his income. Sharma was subsequently interrogated by “seven or eight officials” at the agency’s office.
“They began questioning him about having dozens of bank accounts,” said Sharma’s lawyer Mohammad Haider. “He clarified that he had just one account in his name and two others in the name of his firm.” Haider added that Sharma has received “multiple such notices” over the years.
The timing of the notice was also curious; a day before it was sent, Sharma had addressed a press conference in Delhi about attacks on journalists in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida.
Sharma was later granted interim protection in the matter by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court. The state government, meanwhile, filed a counter affidavit claiming that Sharma had “amassed a lot of unaccounted money with the help of unscrupulous officials”. The case is awaiting trial.
Another fallout of 4PM’s reporting has been a dearth of state government advertisements, Sharma said.
“All we have got in the name of ads since 2017 from the state government is worth Rs 50,000,” he said. He also claimed that certain officials in the secretariat told him to “tone down content” in order to get ads from the government.
A Lucknow-based journalist told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that the Adityanath government’s animosity towards Sharma stems from the fact that Sharma is “close” to former chief minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav. When 4PM’s publishing group, Aastha Printers, started a new magazine in 2016, Yadav had been the chief guest at the launch.
But Sharma scoffed at this, pointing out that he had been critical of the Samajwadi Party government as well. In 2013, he said, he had even filed a public interest litigation seeking the dismissal of IAS officer Rajiv Kumar, who had been named in a plot allocation scam along with former chief secretary Neera Yadav.
Sharma said, “As a journalist, people from different parties often come to my office including SP, BJP and BSP.”
Other “intimidatory tactics”, according to Sharma, include the fact that his state accreditation as a journalist was not renewed from 2017 onward, even though he’s been a state accredited journalist since 2010. This deprives him of facilities for journalists such as subsidised railway fares, medical treatment and housing.
In fact, in 2019, he received a notice from the state government asking him to vacate the house allotted to him in Butler Palace colony. He was also allegedly threatened by a member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini on social media, who tagged Adityanath in a post asking that action be taken against Sharma for “illegally occupying the house”.
Sharma also claims he’s no longer invited for official press conferences and his pass for the secretariat was not renewed from 2017 to 2020.
In April 2021, Sharma wrote a four-page letter to Adityanath alleging harassment by state authorities and requesting him to intervene. He hasn’t heard from the chief minister since then.
Sharma’s SP past
But not everyone in Lucknow’s journalistic circle is convinced of what Sharma says.
Newslaundry spoke with six journalists based in Lucknow, who did not want to be named for this story. All six concurred that “while 4PM has been vocal against the Yogi government, Sharma did get benefits, particularly contracts related to printing under the erstwhile Samajwadi Party government.”
A senior journalist said, “Sharma was close to Dharmendra Yadav, former Member of Parliament from Badaun. That’s how he grew close to the Samajwadi Party.” While Sharma was a stringer in Badaun, the journalist said, he expanded into the printing business and moved base to Lucknow.
A member of Uttar Pradesh’s Accredited Journalists’ Association explained that 4PM “does not have any circulation as such”: copies are sent to the secretariat, government offices, bureaucrats and journalists. Under the Samajwadi Party government, the journalist said, the paper “got ads at a commercial rate despite not being recognised by the directorate of advertising and visual publicity”.
How? “While the rate of ads for newspapers recognised by the DAVP might range from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000, if the government issues ads at a commercial rate, the price goes up to Rs 1 lakh,” he said. Sharma, however, denied these allegations and maintained that 4PM got all the ads at the rate decided by the DAVP.
All the journalists who spoke to Newslaundry did agree that 4PM has taken a strong stand against the BJP government. “Their coverage of Covid was also strong,” said a Lucknow reporter, “be it the migrant crisis or the shortage of oxygen and beds.”
A senior journalist who has known Sharma for the last two decades explained why Sharma isn’t getting widespread support for being “targeted” by the Adityanath government.
“One can point fingers at the current dispensation only when that organisation and concerned journalist has had a clean track record,” he said. “That explains why other journalists haven’t joined him in his protest regarding victimisation.”
He added that the inquiry into Sharma by the economic offences wing followed a charge that 4PM did not have the necessary release order to carry government ads. “Yet, payments were made under the Akhilesh regime.” Importantly, the journalist added that Sharma’s printing press had published the Samajwadi Party’s monthly magazine, Samajwadi Bulletin, though he did not clarify when this was.
On his part, Sharma maintained that 4PM had the requisite release order for all ads issued by the state government between 2012 and 2017.
Martand Singh is a journalist in Lucknow.