Authorities in Chhattisgarh state and the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir region must immediately release journalists Nilesh Sharma and Fahad Shah and drop all investigations launched based on their journalistic work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
On March 2, police in Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur arrested Sharma, editor of privately owned satirical news website Indiawriters.co.in, at his home, according to multiple news reports.
Separately, on Sunday, March 6, police in Jammu and Kashmir re-arrested Shah, editor of the privately owned news website The Kashmir Walla, hours after he was granted bail in another case, according to multiple news reports. This is the third time that Shah has been arrested since February 4, according to those reports and CPJ documentation.
Both journalists remained in detention as of Wednesday morning, according to those sources, and have been accused of cognizable offenses, which allow police to arrest them without a warrant and begin an investigation without the permission of a court.
“The rapidly growing number of journalist detentions reflects India’s utter intolerance for press freedom and peaceful criticism of the state,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, in New York. “Authorities must immediately release Nilesh Sharma and Fahad Shah, drop their investigations into their journalistic work, and take steps to reverse the escalating criminalization of journalism.”
On March 2, Raipur police filed a first information report, which opens a police investigation, against Sharma based on a complaint filed by Khilawan Nishad, a member of the Indian National Congress, the ruling party in Chhattisgarh, according to independent newspaper The Indian Express. Nishad alleged that characters in Sharma’s satirical columns resembled the party’s ministers and legislators, driving a “wedge between ministers,” according to a copy of his complaint, which CPJ reviewed.
In the report, police accused Sharma of violating four sections of the Indian penal code pertaining to intentional insult to provoke breach of peace, publication of statements conducive to public mischief, publishing rumors, and publishing statements promoting enmity between classes, according to news reports and a copy of the first information report, which CPJ reviewed.
Each of those offenses can carry a prison sentence between two and three years, and an unspecified fine, according to the law.
On Monday, March 7, police claimed to have found “pornographic content” and “sensitive confidential documents” on Sharma’s phone and are now investigating him on additional counts of violating a section of the Information Technology Act pertaining to publication or transmission of material containing a sexually explicit act, and two sections of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act pertaining to living on the earnings of prostitution and procuring or inducing prostitution, according to news reports and a copy of a police statement, which CPJ reviewed.
If charged and convicted under the Information Technology Act, Sharma could face up to five years in prison and a fine of 1 million rupees (US$13,000), according to the law. The offenses under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act can carry a prison sentence between two to seven years and a fine between 2,000 rupees (US$26) and 100,000 (US$1,300), according to the law.
CPJ emailed Chhattisgarh Police Director-General Ashok Juneja for comment but did not receive a reply. CPJ’s calls to Sharma’s family members went unanswered.
In Shah’s case, the Shopian judicial magistrate granted him bail on March 6, but Srinagar police again re-arrested Shah in relation to The Kashmir Walla’s eporting on a gun fight between armed forces and alleged militants in May 2020, according to a report by his outlet and Shah’s colleague at The Kashmir Walla, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation by authorities.
Srinagar police registered an additional first information report against Shah on July 9, 2020, accusing him of violating five sections of the Indian penal code pertaining to rioting, attempted murder, printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory, statements conducing to public mischief, and abetment according to The Kashmir Walla.
The first four offenses can carry a prison sentence between two and 10 years and an unspecified fine, according to the law, which says that abetment carries the same punishment as committing an offense itself.
Jammu and Kashmir Police Director-General Dilbag Singh did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app.
Police initially arrested Shah on February 4 for allegedly publishing “anti-national content,” and began investigating him for sedition and making statements causing public mischief under the Indian penal code and the anti-terror Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, as CPJ documented at the time.
On February 27, Shah was granted bail in that case, but Shopian police re-arrested him in relation to The Kashmir Walla’s reporting on alleged official pressure on a Kashmir school and began investigating him on provocation with intent to cause a riot and publishing statements conducive to public mischief, both crimes under the Indian penal code, as CPJ documented.
In February, 57 publications, press freedom groups, and human rights organizations including CPJ wrote a letter to Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha demanding Shah’s release, along with Sajad Gul, Aasif Sultan and Manan Gulzar Dar.