17 Apr 2020

JNI adviser in press freedom case

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A member of the Judith Neilson Institute’s International Advisory Council, Siddharth Varadarajan, and the online news website he co-founded are being investigated by police for criticising the Chief Minister of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Varadarajan, a former editor of one of India’s largest circulating newspapers, The Hindu, and his online site, The Wire, published a story about the Chief Minister violating the Indian Government’s official guidelines on COVID-19 by participating in a religious ceremony along with dozens of other people a day after Prime Minister Modi announced a national lockdown.

Two readers alleged the story was disrespectful of the Chief Minister and filed a complaint with police. Varadarajan and The Wire have been charged with six crimes: disobeying an order of a public official; spreading a rumour with intent to cause a riot; using a computer to impersonate someone; transmitting obscene material online; disobeying a public official in a time of epidemic; and, circulating a false alarm as to a disaster, leading to panic.

The Wire issued a statement that the Chief Minister’s attendance at the ceremony was a matter of public record and that the complaints are aimed at “stifling legitimate expression and factual information.”

The international Committee to Protect Journalists has called for the charges to be dropped.

“Misusing the COVID-19 lockdown to legally harass The Wire editor Siddharth Varadarajan is an attack on press freedom and an attempt to silence and discredit the journalist and the news outlet,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher in New York. In the past year, CPJ has documented several press freedom violations in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Chairman of JNI, Mr Jim Spigelman AC QC, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of NSW and a former chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has signed a petition calling for the charges to be dropped.

The board of JNI encourages journalists and supporters of press freedom to also sign the petition.