India's top court orders release of journalist jailed for defamation amid media outcry

Jagisha Arora (centre), wife of Prashant Kanojia, taking part in a protest with media members in New Delhi on June 10, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - The Indian Supreme Court has ordered the immediate release on bail of a freelance journalist arrested for a tweet on powerful Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, amid concerns about curbs on free speech.

Mr Prashant Kanojia was arrested at his home in New Delhi last Saturday by police from the central state of Uttar Pradesh, after he shared a video and commented on Twitter and Facebook about a woman who said she video chatted with Mr Adityanath for a year.

Ms Hema Saxena told reporters she had a marriage proposal for him.

Mr Kanojia, accused by the police of spreading rumours on social media, has been charged with criminal defamation, which carries a maximum sentence of two years

The Supreme Court on Tuesday (June 11) told the Uttar Pradesh police to release the journalist, noting that the arrest was wrong in this case.

"We may disapprove these tweets but we (also) disapprove the denial of liberty," said the Supreme Court which did not go into the details, according to media reports.

The police case will continue against the journalist. The police have maintained that his comments and the spread of the woman's claims had defamed Mr Adityanath, who belongs to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Besides Mr Kanojia, two others were also arrested. Mr Ishika Singh, the head of a private television news channel, and its editor Anuj Shukla were arrested for defamation following a discussion on Ms Saxena's comments. There was no update on their case.

The arrests have been condemned by many within the Indian media as an attack on freedom of expression and press freedom, amid a shrinking space for criticising those in power.

"The police action is high-handed, arbitrary and amounts to an authoritarian misuse of laws," the Editors' Guild said in its statement.

Other media organisations also slammed the police. "It is our firm belief that journalists ought to conduct themselves responsibly, yet at the same time, we feel that criminal provisions of the defamation law should be taken off the statute books, given their repeated use against journalists and others," said a group of media organisations, including the Indian Women's Press Corps, Press Club of India, South Asian Women in the Media and the Press Association.

India has more than 400 news and current affairs channels, as well as dozens of English, Hindi and regional-language newspapers and news websites.

The media, known for its aggressive style of journalism, has come under severe challenges in recent times, including increasing reports of intimidation, death threats and trolling.

There is also increasing concern that journalists are being targeted by those in power through the use of laws, like the defamation and sedition legislation, as well as the National Security Act.

In the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, India slipped from 136 in 2017 to 138 in 2018. The index of 180 nations measures the level of media freedom.

The Indian Express said in an editorial: "Clearly, therefore, this response of the police is an attempt to intimidate anyone who takes a swipe at those in power."

It added: "The UP (Uttar Pradesh) police are doing what is, disturbingly, becoming frequent, evident in the shameful string of arrests of men and women across the country for posting or even forwarding material critical of those in power."

In the state of Assam, senior journalist Hiren Gohain is accused of sedition for criticising the state and federal government on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The Bill, which has been passed by the Upper House of Parliament, seeks to give citizenship to Hindu refugees from neighbouring countries.

In the state of Manipur, journalist Kishorechand Wangkhem was detained for 12 months under the National Security Act for a Facebook post which was critical of Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh of the BJP.

Senior journalist Mrinal Pandey said: "It is certainly becoming tougher (for journalists), specially journalists who are freelancers or working with small organisations."

She said Mr Kanojia's case was quite clearly aimed at creating "fear of god" among young journalists, especially those writing about people in power.

"It does impact freedom of speech. I am glad all major journalist organisations have condemned it."

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