Updated: June 6, 2021 10:43:14 am
While the Supreme Court has quashed the sedition case against veteran journalist Vinod Dua that was registered in Himachal Pradesh last year, at least six other news reporters in the hill state have been booked by the police while covering the Covid pandemic.
Last year, 14 FIRs were registered against five reporters in various parts of the state during the lockdown period. Another reporter was booked on the very first day of the corona curfew imposed last month when the country was battling a brutal Covid surge.
That particular day, Zee Punjab Haryana Himachal TV channel had aired a news report about Covid e-passes which were issued by the state government to two applicants named Donald Trump and Amitabh Bachchan. The Himachal government had reintroduced the Covid e-pass system to regulate inter-state movement of people during the Covid surge.
The two personalities wanted to travel from Chandigarh to Shimla as essential service providers, according to the e-passes which were soon put up on social media by Congress leaders.
Aman Bhardwaj, who was reporting from Shimla, told viewers that the bogus passes had been obtained by ‘us’ for a ‘reality check’.
“Such names are being permitted to enter the state. There is nobody to cross-check or verify (the applications). We put these (names) to show this (loophole),” he had said. The story about the bogus e-passes was later followed by numerous other electronic, print and web media outlets, including this newspaper.
In the evening, the Shimla police booked Bhardwaj under sections 419 (cheating by impersonation), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating), 471 (using as genuine a forged document) of the Indian Penal Code, and also under the Information Technology (IT) Act and the Disaster Management Act.
The case was registered after the IT department informed the police that the two e-passes had been booked against Bhradwaj’s mobile number and Aadhaar card. The police, later, summoned him for questioning and also seized his phone and the broadband from his flat.
In a Facebook post, Bhardwaj defended himself saying that he was a native of Himachal Pradesh, was already present in Shimla while obtaining the passes, and only intended to test the e-pass system as thousands of people were entering the state amid the covid surge and curfew. For this purpose, he used his own details and the two fake names, he said, adding that his curiosity and passion towards reporting had been ‘murdered’ as a result of the FIR.
According to the police, they were informed by the IT department that anyone applying for e-pass has to declare that “the facts and contents given during the registration are true to the best of his/her knowledge and belief”.
Meanwhile, Bhardwaj has also approached the high court seeking quashing of criminal charges against him. A few days ago, the Youth Congress started a social media campaign against the FIR against Bhardwaj, with president Nigam Bhandari saying that the BJP government has repeatedly been targeting media-persons who highlight its various shortcomings.
Last year, four of the 14 FIRs against reporters were related to live video reports highlighting the conditions of stranded labourers, with people being interviewed alleging inadequate supply of ration and even lack of access to a water source in one case. The reports were declared ‘fake’ or ‘sensational’ by the police.
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