Journalist Kanojia's arrest cannot become the status quo

Last Updated: Thu, Jun 13, 2019 15:33 hrs
Prashant Kanojia

After 11 days in custody, journalist Prashant Kanojia walked out of custody on bail from a Lucknow jail after the Supreme Court demanded that he be immediately released. Kanojia was arrested in Delhi by Uttar Pradesh police after posting an alleged objectionable post against UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

After a petition was filed by Kanojia’s wife, Jagisha Arora, the apex court observed that they did not feel the need to comment on the post itself, but said in part, “The question is, should the petitioner have been deprived of his liberty over them. The answer to that is prima facie in the negative. Fundamental rights under Article 19 and 21 are non-negotiable.” Kanojia, a freelance journalist, used to work for The Wire, which in its editorial published before the SC order on his release, called Yogi Adityanath the Commissar –

“The arrest of Prashant Kanojia marks an escalation of the ongoing war in the country against the media and free speech. The UP police have served notice on all journalists and the lay public alike: if you say or write something about the chief minister that he finds objectionable, be prepared to go to jail.” The post in question is of a woman who claimed to be involved with Adityanath and Kanojia shared this video with comments making fun of the Chief Minister.

In addition to this, the additional solicitor general Vikramajit Banerjee cited tweets by him that were about gods and goddesses. He said to the court, “His tweets are very strong, very inflammatory.” The same video got two other journalists, Ishita Singh, and the editor, Anuj Shukla of ‘Nation Live’ arrested on Saturday.

The arrest of Kanojia sparked comparisons to the arrest of BJP youth wing leader Priyanka Sharma. She was granted bail on May 14 after a defamation complaint was filed by a local TMC leader for allegedly making an objectionable meme against Mamata Bannerjee. The same principle in essence was applied in saying the fundamental right to liberty is non- negotiable. In the case of Sharma, the court observed that freedom of speech of an individual cannot infringe upon others’ rights. The Tribune editorial commended the Supreme Court for upholding the constitution –

“The Supreme Court has upheld the majesty of law once again and reassured us that we are not a banana republic yet. The Supreme Court very clearly spelt out where the UP Police have gone wrong… People in positions of authority with power to curtail others’ freedoms should exercise it with grave restraint.”

The UP police made the arrest and cited Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act stating that the post was made to malign the image of the Chief Minister. As Section 66 of the IT Act deals with “fraudulently/dishonestly damaging a computer system”, it has no relevance here. The police statement included the additional provision of Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code, which wasn’t stated in the FIR. This deals with statements that can cause issues of law and order; which clearly weren’t applicable in this instance.

The police also made the arrest from a place that was outside their jurisdiction. The policecome under the purview of the Chief Minister of the state. The Priyanka Sharma case is another example of state power overriding basic freedoms and liberties. The Supreme Court in that case upheld the constitution. However, as Delhi based lawyer Abhinav Sekhri, in a column or Live Law states, this shouldn’t become the status quo –

“The Supreme Court is not an ever-vigilant sentinel. Kanojia's arrest and the Supreme Court's intervention are very painful reminders of just how deep and pervasive the rot runs in our legal system. Where the executive controls the police, what else do you expect will happen if someone decides to challenge a Chief Minister?”

Earlier last month, S.A. Hemanth Kumar, a journalist associated with the BJP was granted bail after he was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for sharing a fake letter supposedly written by Home Minister MB Patil to Sonia Gandhi. The advocate for Kumar and spokesperson for the BJP Vivek Reddy called it a political witch hunt.

Earlier this year, Reporters without Borders released its annual World Press Freedom Index and India dropped two places to be ranked 140 out of 180 countries. The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and other attacks were mentioned by the organisation in their statement about the state of Press freedom in India. They stated in part –

“Violence against journalists including police violence, attacks by Maoist fighters and reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt politicians is one of the most striking characteristics of the current state of press freedom in India.”

More columns by Varun Sukumar