Expressing concern over the Delhi Police’s “alleged threat of criminal prosecution and questioning” of a reporter with The Indian Express, the Press Council of India (PCI) Friday said the “matter affects the free functioning of the press” and it is seeking a report from the Commissioner of Police, Delhi.
The Indian Express Special Correspondent Mahender Singh Manral was questioned by Delhi Police on May 11 in connection with a May 9 report ‘Tablighi FIR: Police probe indicates Saad audio clip was doctored’. The Delhi Police had called the report “factually incorrect. purely conjectural” and on May 10 sent a notice under Section 160 CrPC to the City Editor and Chief Reporter, requiring the presence of the reporter on May 11 at the Rohini office of the Crime Branch, Delhi, to produce all relevant documents and material and to join the probe or face legal action under Section 174 IPC — it can result in a prison term and fine.
Manral went to the Crime Branch office on May 11 where he was questioned for three hours. He submitted a prepared statement along with a booklet, ‘A guide for law enforcement agencies’ on ‘how to spot and investigate’ fake news, uploaded by the Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPR&D) which had referred to Maulana Saad’s audio. The guide/booklet was pulled down within a day of being posted online.
When contacted by The Indian Express on May 10, BPR&D spokesperson Jitendra Yadav said: “There are some corrections being made in the booklet. It will be uploaded again after that.”
In a press release issued Friday, the PCI said it “expresses its concern over alleged threat of criminal prosecution and questioning of a Special Correspondent of The Indian Express, by Delhi police on 11.05.2020 in connection with a news report published in the paper on May 9, 2020”.
“Since matter affects the free functioning of the press, while taking suo motu cognisance of the matter, a Report on Facts of the case is being called for from the Commissioner of Police, Delhi,” it said.
The PCI press release comes two days after the Editors Guild of India, describing the Delhi Police action as “egregious and high-handed”, said it was part of a “growing pattern of misuse of criminal laws to intimidate journalists in different parts of the country”.
“While Manral wasn’t charged under any law, he was threatened that failure to join the probe could result in legal action under Section 174 of the IPC with punishment of a prison term and fine. This appears to be a little more than a fishing expedition to try and extract the journalist’s source and, thus, warn other reporters,” the Guild said in a statement.
On May 9, The Indian Express reported that an initial investigation by the Delhi Police Crime Branch found that an audio clip mentioned in the police FIR against Markaz Nizamuddin head Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, which suggested he had asked Tablighi Jamaat members not to follow social distancing norms and prohibitory orders, may be “doctored” and stitched together using several audio files.
The Delhi Police notice under Section 160 CrPC was sent on the day The Indian Express published the police rejoinder with its own response that the report was based on conversations with sources and officials aware of the probe against Maulana Saad, and that calls and a message to Special CP (Crime) Praveer Ranjan on May 8 for his comments before publication received no response.
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