PEN International joins PEN Delhi in concerns over reports of a First Information Report (FIR) being lodged on 18 June 2020 against senior journalist Supriya Sharma, executive editor at Scroll.in, and its chief editor, Naresh Fernandes, who is not named in the FIR.
Ms. Sharma recently wrote a series of articles about the impact of the nationwide lockdown imposed in India to prevent and contain the spread of coronavirus. In one story she interviewed a resident of Varanasi’s Domari village who said in the published article that she was a domestic worker and had experienced acute food distress during the lockdown as she did not have the paperwork necessary to get food assistance. The interviewee, subsequently filed a complaint, alleging that Ms. Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity in the article, and disputed that neither she nor her family faced any problems during the lockdown.
In its public response, Scroll.in stands by its story. It says that the interview was carried out on June 5 and that the interviewee’s statements were reported accurately. “The FIR is an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 lockdown,” Scroll.in said.
A FIR is prepared by the police when they receive complaints of an offence under Indian laws and decide which provisions of the law apply. The law lays down which offences are cognizable and which aren’t. Under a FIR arrests can be made without a warrant and initiate investigations without a court order.
Among the sections of the Indian law that the FIR against Ms. Sharma cites is the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989), specifically relating to insult to members of the marginalized communities protected by the Act. The FIR also refers to the Indian Penal Code on defamation and ‘negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.’
That this assault on press freedom is another in a long line of such cases during the pandemic makes it even more disturbing. A report by the Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), published last week, claimed that 55 Indian journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on COVID-19 or “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020”.
In a statement, Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:
Supriya Sharma’s report pointed out a profound weakness in India’s poorly-planned lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. Her stories have shown the adverse impact of the lockdown on India’s most vulnerable people. That it happened in the Prime Minister’s constituency is no doubt embarrassing to the government. For the police to treat the complaint as a cognizable offence shows that the real intent of the state is not to provide an effective remedy for the complainant, but to silence dissent. The invoking of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocity) Act is particularly disturbing since it prevents the defendants from seeking anticipatory bail. In India, the process is often the punishment, and Ms. Sharma’s report cannot in any sense be described as ‘a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.’
Several governments around the world have used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on investigative media, and India is no exception, as the intimidation of Vidya Krishnan and Siddharth Varadarajan earlier this year have shown. PEN International calls upon Indian authorities to desist from using draconian laws against independent reporting and urges parliamentarians to amend the law that allows the state and individuals to use them to stop reporting they don’t like.
Supriya Sharma is an award-winning reporter whose work has won accolades around the world. She has received India’s highest journalism awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award, and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Journalists, and has been a Reuter Fellow at Oxford University. Her in-depth reporting from the ground, covering rural India and the country’s vulnerable groups has exposed readers to the reality to which many publications have not paid attention. Naresh Fernandes is a veteran journalist and author who has worked for the Times of India in Mumbai and the Wall Street Journal in New York. He is the author of two books.
 Varanasi is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency and Domari village is part of Mr. Modi’s Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (Parliamentary Model Village Scheme).