The Editors Guild of India has criticised the Uttar Pradesh government for registering an FIR against the Founding Editor of The Wire news portal Siddharth Varadarajan.
Meanwhile, the U.P. Police have served a notice to Mr. Varadarajan asking him to appear in Ayodhya on April 14 in connection with the FIR, said Nandini Sundar, noted sociologist and wife of Mr. Varadarajan.
Ms. Sundar, who said policemen from Ayodhya drove to Delhi to hand over the notice, pointed out Mr. Varadarajan was served the summon despite the current lockdown over COVID-19.
“When it comes to the gross abuse of police power by the Adityanath administration in U.P. and its intolerance of press freedom, it is clear that COVID-19, the lockdown and social distancing make no difference whatsoever,” she said on Twitter.
The Uttar Pradesh Police had earlier this month lodged two FIRs against Mr. Varadarajan, on charges of allegedly wrongly attributing a quote to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on the Ram Navami festival controversy.
Both the FIRs were lodged in the Ayodhya district, one of them by the officer-in-charge of Faizabad Kotwali. The cases were booked under Sections 188 (disobedience to order) and 505 (2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) of the Indian Penal Code. One of the FIRs also curiously invokes Section 66D of the IT Act, which deals with “punishment for cheating by personation by using computer resource”.
“A police action in the form of an FIR under criminal laws at this stage is an overreaction and an act of intimidation,” said the Editors Guild of India (EGI) in a statement.
Any such intimidation of the media or blaming the media for mass migration of workers will be counterproductive, the Guild added.
“Such actions will be tantamount to disabling the messenger,” the EGI further said.
The matters pertains to an article published in The Wire on March 31 in the backdrop of the controversy over the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi. The line in the article found objectionable by the U.P. Police allegedly linked Mr. Adityanath to saying that Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus.
Mr. Varadarajan had tweeted the paragraph while sharing the news article. “On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Adityanath insisted a large Ram Navami fair planned for Ayodhya from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual and that ‘Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus’,” he tweeted.
The following day, on April 1 in the afternoon, Mr. Varadarajan issued a clarification that Mr. Adityanath did not utter the words on Lord Ram saving devotees from the coronavirus. “I should clarify that it was Acharya Paramhans, Hindutva stalwart and head of the official Ayodhya temple trust, who said Ram would protect devotees from coronavirus, and not Adityanath, though he allowed a public event on 25/3 in defiance of the lockdown and took part himself,” Mr. Varadarajan tweeted.
The article on The Wire was also edited with the clarification. “In an earlier version of the story, the quote about Ram saving devotees from the coronavirus was wrongly attributed to Yogi Adityanath. It was in fact said by Acharya Paramhans, head of the official Ram temple trust,” the article said.
The FIR lodged on the complaint of officer-in charge of Faizabad Kotwali Nitish Kumar Shrivastava accused Mr. Varadarajan of spreading discord, enmity and rumours through his post. It also accused Mr. Varadarajan of making “undignified” comments against Mr. Adityanath.
Mritunjay Kumar, media advisor to Mr. Adityanath, said that despite “our warnings, he [Mr. Varadarajan] did not delete his lies neither sought an apology”.
“FIR has been lodged. Further action is being taken,” Mr. Kumar said in a tweet.
In an earlier tweet on April 1 morning, Mr. Kumar had warned Mr. Varadarajan that action would be taken against him and a defamation case lodged if he did not delete the post. “Along with running the website, [you] will have to seek donations to fight the case,” Mr. Kumar taunted the editor.
‘Right to liberty’
In a statement issued late on April 1, Mr. Varadarajan said he had come to know about the FIRs through social media.
“A bare perusal of the FIR shows that it is politically motivated and the offences invoked are not even remotely made out,” Mr. Varadarajan said.
The government of Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh does not seem to have learnt anything despite the strictures passed against it by the Supreme Court in June 2019 when the court ordered the release of the journalist Prashant Kanojia, whom the State had illegally arrested, he said. The right to liberty is a fundamental right and non-negotiable, the court had said, added Mr. Varadarajan.
“What the FIR says I have stated — that Chief Minister Adityanath attended a public religious event in Ayodhya on March 25 after the Prime Minister had announced a national lockdown — is a matter of record,” Mr. Varadarajan said.