Lucknow: When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went to inspect the district hospital in Moradabad Sunday, journalists were allegedly locked in a room and not allowed to accompany him.
People immediately began sharing the incident on social media, giving fresh momentum to allegations that journalists are being targeted in Uttar Pradesh. The local administration in Moradabad and the UP government refuted the charge.
“There were 30-40 reporters, cameramen who had reached the hospital for the inspection visit of the CM. We did not lock them up but merely asked them to wait in a room when the CM was visiting wards of malnourished children and women since we did not want the patients to get disturbed by the media crowd. In fact, there were no formal complaints from the journalists about these allegations,” Moradabad DM Rakesh Kumar Singh told ThePrint.
UP Health Minister and government spokesperson Sidharth Nath Singh also maintained that journalists might have been asked to remain in one place.
“With all due respect to journalism, we wish them well and we would love to cooperate, but at the same time, wards in hospitals are for patients,” Singh told ThePrint.
Spate of incidents
Last month, the arrest of a Delhi-based journalist, who was picked by policemen in plain clothes and brought to Lucknow, had caused ripples. The journalist, Prashant Kanojia, was arrested by the UP police for sharing “objectionable” material against Adityanath on social media. It was only after the Supreme Court’s intervention that Kanojia was let off.
In the days that followed Kanojia’s arrest, the state had seen a slew of arrests and police cases — all related to sharing the allegedly defamatory material on social media. This material was related to a Kanpur-based woman’s declaration of love for Adityanath.
The arrests had included that of a Gorakhpur farmer, a Mumbai-based worker from Fatehpur, and a village pradhan from Basti.
Police maintained that all except the Gorakhpur farmer were out on bail. According to the Gorakhpur police, while the farmer’s bail petition is pending in a local court, strikes and holidays in court have led to a delay in granting the bail.
Nevertheless, UP-based journalists with the Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) have condemned the recent cases, terming them as “unfortunate” and “undemocratic”.
“Such instances of the government trying to muzzle the voices of journalists writing against the government have increased under the current dispensation, and an atmosphere of fear has been created,” said Mudit Mathur, a senior journalist associated with the IFWJ.
“However, this trend is not new. Even under the former UP governments under the BSP and SP, there had been cases where journalists were attacked and booked for raising their voices. This is also not specific to UP; the trend can be seen across the country.”
Asked about the alleged crackdown on dissenting voices, especially with regard to the increase in such cases being reported last month, minister Singh declined to comment, maintaining that the issue had already been clarified by the government and police.
The case of Zakir Ali Tyagi
Shortly after Adityanath’s BJP government took charge of Uttar Pradesh, an 18-year-old resident of Muzaffarnagar, Zakir Ali Tyagi, was arrested. His alleged crime was commentary on social media about the Ganga being declared a living entity, raising concerns over police cases against the new UP CM, questioning the government’s policy on the Haj pilgrimage, and uploading a photo of slain Dadri cop Akhtar Ali as his profile picture.
“I was arrested from my house in April 2017. My crime was that I raised my voice against the government and for this I spent more than 40 days in prison on charges of sedition, cheating (420 IPC) and Section 66 of the IT Act. The case is still pending in court and charges are yet to be framed,” Tyagi said.
Since Tyagi’s arrest, at least half-a-dozen persons were arrested in Saharanpur, Meerut, Gautam Buddh Nagar, Varanasi, Pratapgarh, Ballia and Ghaziabad. The crime was the same — sharing “offensive’, “objectionable” and “defamatory” content on social media, which included criticising late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, or ridiculing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Adityanath.
Death in Shahjahanpur
Four years ago, there had been an outcry over the alleged murder of Shahjahanpur-based freelance journalist Jagendra Singh. Singh was allegedly set ablaze after he helped a rape survivor file a case against her perpetrators. The woman, an anganwadi worker, had been raped allegedly by then-Samajwadi Party minister Ram Murti Verma at a government guesthouse in Shahjahanpur.
Purportedly to teach the woman a lesson, Verma’s men, including a local inspector, had taken her to Singh’s residence, where they allegedly beat him up and set him ablaze. Singh had also published a slew of posts on his social media account alleging corruption and illegal mining by the minister.
The police, however, claimed that they had gone to pick up Singh for an alleged case of kidnapping, and that he had poured kerosene on himself and tried to commit suicide.
A week later, Singh succumbed to his burn injuries at a Lucknow hospital. During the trial in the case, Singh’s son, who was an eyewitness, made a U-turn and claimed that his father had self-immolated.
“This happened under the Akhilesh Yadav government but no action was taken against the minister and the witnesses who turned hostile,” Mathur said.
‘Ignorance’ the real culprit
While the government claims to have no consolidated data on journalists attacked or killed in the country, some studies have attempted to fill this lacuna.
A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) stated that UP registered the most number of cases — 64 — but just four persons were arrested.
However, the real “culprit” in UP appears to be ignorance — whether of accused persons on social media, or the police in booking them.
For instance, the Basti village pradhan who was arrested last month for sharing a fake wedding invite of the UP CM claimed to have recently bought a smartphone. Maintaining that he was a novice to smartphone technology, the village pradhan had “accidentally” forwarded the fake wedding invite on a local police group.
“He told the court and the police that he clicked on the screen and did not realise what he was sending to which person on WhatsApp,” said a local policeman in Basti.
Meanwhile, in Kanojia and Tyagi’s cases, the UP police had initially booked them under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act — a law which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court four years ago.