Authorities in India should immediately drop all charges against Poonam Agrawal, a journalist for the English-language news website The Quint, the Committee to Protect journalists said today.
Police in Nashik, roughly 170 kilometres (105 miles) northeast of Mumbai, on March 28 opened a criminal case against Agrawal on charges of spying and criminal trespass under the Official Secrets Act, a 1923 anti-espionage law. They also charged her with criminal defamation and abetment of a suicide under the Penal Code, according to the journalist and media reports. If convicted of all charges, she faces a maximum sentence of 29 years in prison.
The charges stem from Agrawal’s reporting on senior army officers’ alleged improper use of subordinate soldiers for personal work. In a video report The Quint published on February 24 but since removed from its website, Agrawal is seen entering an Army camp in the state of Maharashtra, where Nashik is located, allegedly without permission, filming the premises, and using a hidden camera to record conversations with soldiers, according to media reports. One of the soldiers she taped, Roy Matthews, was found dead on March 2, in what police have determined was a suicide, according to media reports.
“Charging journalists with serious crimes for reporting on the military risks having a chilling effect on press freedom,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Lauría said from New York. “We call on Indian authorities to drop all charges against Poonam Agrawal and direct their attention to reforming outdated laws on espionage that are easily abused to intimidate critics.”
Col. Aman Anand, a public relations officer for the Indian Army, did not respond to CPJ’s questions emailed to him on March 31.
“This is nothing but an attempt by the Indian Army to shut up journalists from exposing wrongdoings in the institution,” Agrawal told CPJ. “It will set a very bad precedent, because in future, an editor or reporter will think twice before raising their voices against the Army.”
India’s Official Secrets Act has been used against journalists before. In 2002, CPJ wrote a letter to Lal Krishna Advani, then India’s minister of home affairs, expressing concern about the use of the Official Secrets Act to justify the arrest of Kashmir Times journalist Iftikhar Gilani on charges of possessing classified information.