Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Breather for Media Freedom


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News that the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of NewsClick founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha, has been met with jubilation among sections of the media that has an abiding respect for the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression as enunciated in Article 19(1) a of the Indian Constitution. The apex court stated that Purkayastha’s arrest in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) case was invalid as the grounds for his arrest were not supplied to him or his counsel in writing before he was remanded to judicial custody.
Although the bench of Justices B R Gavai and Sandeep Mehta directed that Purkayastha be released from custody after furnishing a bail bond to the satisfaction of the trial court, it also clarified that the order should not be read as ‘comments on the case’s merits.’ This is fair as the due process of law has to be followed. What is unfair is the incarceration that Purkayastha and his HR head, Amit Chakraborty were subjected to since October 2023 after they were arrested by the Delhi Police Special Cell and sent to judicial custody in November. Purkayastha’s arrest followed a report in The New York Times which alleged that NewsClick was funded by US billionaire Neville Singham who is accused of spreading Chinese propaganda in India and elsewhere. The Delhi Police had filed a chargesheet in the case in a Delhi court in March this year. Prabir Purkayastha and his associate were alleged to have funded Lashkar terrorists; inciting violence in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and Chand Bagh protests and using reporters to distribute money during the farmers’ stir at the national capital’s borders. NewsClick has rubbished these allegations calling them “bogus, absurd, and concocted” and stated that they would contest these statements in court. The Delhi Court took cognisance of the chargesheet on April 29 and the case was listed for arguments on May 31. Meanwhile the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court on grounds that they were not furnished the grounds for their arrest.
Under the Modi regime several journalists have been jailed using the UAPA – a draconian law meant to be used against terrorists but unleashed on journalists like Siddique Kappan for covering the Hathras gangrape case. The Delhi Police in particular has been used to arrest protestors against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded that 36 journalists have been arrested and jailed between 2014-2023. Justice Chandrachud had observed that criminal legislations including UAPA, should not be misused for quelling dissent or harassment of citizens. He further said that deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many, and that the courts must always be mindful of the deeper systemic implications of their decisions. Indeed, the Supreme Court needs to take a hard look at the use of such draconian laws on citizens. Fr Stan Swamy was one of those accused under UAPA. He died in Taloja jail, Maharashtra on July 5, 2021. A democracy cannot also have such draconian laws to curb dissent.


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