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This is the third part of Newslaundry’s ongoing series on the case against journalist Siddique Kappan. You can read the earlier parts .
Kappan and three others at a toll plaza in Mathura on October 5, 2020, when he was on his way to Hathras. According to the first information report filed by the UP police on October 7, Kappan has been charged under sections 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), in addition to provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Information Technology Act.
Based on an examination of the chargesheet by defence lawyer Madhuvan Dutt Chaturvedi, Newslaundry has learnt that the UP police’s special task force, or STF, relied heavily on a statement by G Sreedathan, editor in chief of the website Indus Scrolls and associate editor of the magazine and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece, Organiser. Months before his arrest, Kappan had sent a defamation notice to Sreedathan.
Connecting Kappan to PFI
On November 18, 2020, the investigating officer of Kappan’s case made an entry in his daily diary in which he noted that the forensic exam of Kappan’s laptop had recovered a copy of a legal notice in the Documents folder. This legal notice has been presented by UP STF as the reason to investigate Kappan, who is accused of working with the organisation Popular Front of India to further an Islamist agenda. Kappan has consistently denied having any links with PFI.
Addressed to Sreedathan, the notice instructs Sreedathan to take down one particular article with immediate effect as the article amounts to defamation. Whether the court will accept this document as a valid reason to investigate Kappan remains to be seen.
Lawyer Abhinav Sekhri said, “Any document can be potentially relevant in a case, depending on the narrative. So from that angle, there is no issue with it being a legal notice. However, there may be specific barriers to the admissibility of certain legal communications in evidence during trial.”
Kappan’s lawyer Wills Mathews said his client’s association with PFI was limited to his work as a journalist. “He’s [Kappan] a journalist and the license of being a journalist comes with a discretion allowing him to meet with people from all walks of life,” said Mathews.
Kappan’s claim of defamation
The legal notice that piqued the UP STF’s curiosity was sent by Kappan to Sreedathan on April 5, 2020, after an article on Indus Scrolls claimed Kappan “was involved in spreading fake news about the death of two students of Jamia University and propagating anti-Hindu news with the help of funds from PFI (Popular Front of India).” The incident being referred to is from December 15, 2019, when the Delhi police stormed the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, injuring 125 persons, according to .
The article, titled “Popular Front’s Funds and Sidhique [sic] friends create News Riots”, was published by Indus Scroll on March 1, 2020.
“Siddique had played a vital role in publishing news in Malayalam media about two Jamia students shot dead during confrontation with police,” alleged the article. It also claimed PFI was planning “to cause violence in Kerala” and Kappan was “using his influence and funds to create anti-Hindu news in the Malayalam media.”
The article on Indus Scrolls had further stated that owing to the “influence of Siddique Kappan”, reports of the “brutal killings of IB officer Ankit Sharma and Delhi Police constable Ratan Lal have not found enough space in Malayalam media”.
In the legal notice Kappan sent Sreedathan, Kappan’s then lawyer Nisha Bhambhani denied any links between Kappan and PFI. The notice goes on to say, “It is shameful and reprehensible that a publication like yours should carry such a defamatory article which in itself is ‘fake news’.” It directed Indus Scrolls to take down the article with immediate effect as it amounted to defamation. Newslaundry has learnt the article was not taken down at the time. However, Kappan didn’t pursue this case further.
After finding the legal notice on Kappan’s laptop, the UP STF contacted Sreedathan. The investigating officer’s diary entry for November 18, 2020 notes that in a telephonic conversation, Sreedathan “levelled serious allegations against Kappan and KUWJ [Kerala Union of Working Journalists].” Kappan was the secretary of the Delhi unit of KUWJ at the time of his arrest.
During that initial conversation with the investigating officer, Sreedathan also alleged Kappan has “links with PFI” and works “under the guise of a journalist to further PFI’s ideology.” Sreedathan then mentioned complaints regarding the alleged misuse of government funds by KUWJ and said he would cooperate with the UP STF’s investigation.
Sreedathan is the founder and managing director of the website Indus Scrolls and his Twitter bio says he is associate editor of Organiser, which is an RSS mouthpiece. Organiser is also known to carry unsubstantiated reports. In 2016, Organiser had done a cover story on an “exodus” of Hindus from Kairana in UP. The story was discredited by various media outlets, including .
Indus Scrolls describes itself as a not-for-profit media venture on Facebook and its tagline is “we are nationalists to the core”. The right-leaning ideological bias of the publications Sreedathan is associated with does not find a mention in the UP STF’s chargesheet.
Sreedathan’s statement to the UP STF begins with, “Siddique Kappan was staying in Delhi to further the agenda of PFI. This included inciting communal passion in order to cause rifts across the country.” He then goes on to claim Kappan “tried to spread fake news” by saying three Jamia students had died in police firing in December 2019.
However, Kappan had not reported any such thing.
Sreedathan further alleged Kappan’s reports of the clashes between Jamia student protesters and the Delhi police “resulted in protests across Kerala on 15th and 16th December.” The statement also says a news item related to “fake news about death of Jamia students” was carried by Organiser on December 16, 2019.
In December 2019, the Delhi police had denied firing at Jamia students who were protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, but the medical superintendent of Safdarjung Hospital told NDTV that protesters were . Later, a Delhi police inquiry found two police personnel had that day. No deaths from bullet wounds were reported.
In another statement, recorded on November 27, 2020, Sreedathan claimed that when Kappan was a reporter for the Gulf edition of the Malayalam newspaper Thejas, a cover story was done in 2011 that had described Osama bin Laden, the most wanted terrorist as a “martyr who followed the path of Allah”. The chargesheet includes only a translation of the cover page which shows bin Laden’s photograph and a quote about martyrdom from the Quran. There is nothing to indicate Kappan authored this story.
A ‘fake news plan’
Another journalist, who is a reporter with the Malayalam TV news channel Asianet, is also mentioned in Sreedathan’s statement. Sreedathan has alleged the Asianet reporter is a PFI supporter and was involved in spreading fake news during the Delhi riots of February 2020.
A staffer at Asianet, who requested anonymity, rubbished the allegation. “Is this a joke? The only bit of reporting that didn’t go down well with the centre was the reporter mentioning the role of Delhi police during his live,” said the Asianet staffer.
The Malayalam news channel, Media One, has also been named by Sreedharan as part of the alleged “fake news plan”. Sreedathan claimed Media One has “links with another radical Islamic group, Jamaat-e-Islami”.
In an effort to substantiate his statement, Sreedathan has referred to Asianet and Media One’s coverage of the Delhi riots of February 2020 and the 48-hour ban on Asianet and Media One in March 2020 by the ministry of information and broadcasting. According to the ministry, both channels had violated the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act 1995.
How the channels’ coverage of the riots and the ban relate to either the case against Kappan or the alleged links with PFI and Jamaat-e-Islami remains unclear. While there might be instances of misreporting, there doesn’t seem to be any direct link between Kappan and these two channels.
Newslaundry has reached out to the editors of Asianet and Media One for their comments. This piece will be updated if they respond.
A source called WhatsApp
Speaking to Newslaundry, Sreedathan said the starting point for the Indus Scrolls story attacking Kappan was WhatsApp.
“A fake message was sent through a journalist WhatsApp group that 2-3 students were shot by Delhi police," he said. "Soon, a maiyyat namaskaram (condolence meet) was organized in Trivandrum. Certain media outlets played up this fake news. This was deliberately done to create social unrest. It is our understanding that one of the administrators of the group from which this message was sent happened to be Kappan.”
However, he could not recall the name of the WhatsApp group and said he’d have to check with the reporter, who has since left Indus Scrolls.
When asked whether he has evidence to prove Kappan’s links with PFI, Sreedathan said, “I myself have been a journalist and as per my sources, we are sure that Kappan used to work for PFI.”
The UP STF sees Sreedathan as a reliable witness despite the ideological bias of the publications he works for and evidence that months before Kappan’s arrest, Kappan had accused Sreedathan and Indus Scrolls of defamation. When asked how the court was likely to view Sreedathan’s statements, lawyer Abhinav Sekhri said, “Credibility is a matter of weight and entails a subjective element – the extent to which a court may rely upon a witness is entirely for the judge to decide.”