As many as 14 FIRs have been registered by Himachal Pradesh Police against five reporters during the lockdown period.
Four of these FIRs pertain to live video reports highlighting the condition of stranded labourers, with people being interviewed alleging inadequate rations. The FIRs allege that these reports are “fake” or “sensational”.
Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, which prescribes penalty for false alarm leading to panic, has been invoked in a majority of the 14 FIRs. Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code — disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant — has also been invoked in almost all of them.
Details of the cases:
– Nalagarh-based Jagat Bains, who reports for News 18 Himachal and BBN Real News, has been booked thrice by Baddi police. Two cases pertain to spot reports from labour settlements, where stranded labourers allege inadequate rations. One report shows CCTV footage of movement of vehicles, and alleges that they are illegally entering the state.
“Jagat Singh Bains, without any reason, has used a video of the administration on Facebook, making it go viral,” states one FIR. Another FIR says that Bains violated orders by gathering people, making a video and uploading it on Facebook.
“I stand by all my reports. The labourers called me asking me to report their woes. It was my duty to do so,” Bains said.
– In neighbouring Baddi, Om Sharma, a former reporter at Divya Himachal, has also been booked thrice — once for uploading a video on people reportedly sitting on dharna demanding rations, and twice for social media posts.
In one of the posts, he said that detection of COVID-19 in any employee would result in sealing of the entire industrial unit for three months. Sharma told The Indian Express that he had based the report on an online report which was later removed, but whose link he still has. Regarding the other post, Sharma said he was referring to contradictory actions of local authorities concerning relaxation of restrictions.
SP Baddi Rohit Malpani said that all six news items or posts mentioned above were fake. “In one case, the report alleged lack of rations even after it had been provided by the administration. It was an old video,” he said.
– Vishal Anand, a reporter for Aaj Tak, has two FIRs against him, both registered on the complaint of Dalhousie SDM Dr Murari Lal, said Chamba SP Dr Monika.
The SDM alleged that Anand falsely showed visuals of Dalhousie in a report on COVID cases in Chamba, and alleged that vehicles for medical supplies were being used to bring the virus from Pathankot in Punjab. The second FIR was registered after Anand made comments on an online portal that the SDM showed favouritism in issuing curfew passes, Lal said.
Anand said that Dalhousie is part of Chamba district, and visuals of Dalhousie being used in the Chamba report cannot be called false. “They are trying to suppress journalists who criticise them,” he said.
Anand said he rightly pointed out that vehicles coming from Punjab should not be used for medicine supply due to a large number of cases there.
– Five FIRs were registered against Sundernagar-based Ashwani Saini, an independent reporter, including one case of alleged false news regarding people not getting rations, one case of moving in a vehicle without curfew pass and three cases of him allegedly entering brick kilns illegally and intimidating workers.
Saini said he interviewed workers at brick kilns which were operating illegally and the cases were cross-FIRs on the complaint of brick-kiln owners. “I made a live Facebook report on people saying they are not getting rations. The administration booked me to suppress the truth,” he said.
Police said that Saini made false allegations as 64 kits had been provided in the settlement at Bharajwanu village shown in the video.
– In Manali, Somdev Sharma wrote in Punjab Kesari that a man from COVID hotspot Mohali had arrived in Kullu. The police booked him, alleging that Sharma published false and unverified information, creating panic. Sharma said he based the report on his police sources. Kullu SP Gaurav Singh said that Sharma had falsely written in his report that a person entered the district illegally without a pass.
The Congress demanded withdrawal of the FIRs, alleging that the government was trying to cover up its inept handling of the crisis by intimidating journalists.
Mohan Lal Verma, a member of Shimla-based Working Journalists’ Association, said that journalists are frontline warriors in the COVID crisis. “Instead of registering FIRs, they should be assured medical compensation in case of contracting the disease,” he said.