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India: Pursuit of criminal defamation charges against independent news outlet signals further decline of press freedom

Friday 11 November 2022 - 3:45pm

The Wire

PEN International is concerned about reports of the disproportionate use of police powers against the Indian news website, the Wire, following its voluntary retraction of a news story that was found to have been based on false information. We call on the Indian authorities to cease its harassment of the Wire and its staff and to repeal the country’s criminal defamation laws so that journalists throughout India can continue to exercise their right to freedom of expression without the threat of unjust persecution.

On 31 October 2022, the Delhi police carried out searches of the Wire’s office and the residences of several editors employed by the news outlet. The searches were prompted following the lodging of a formal complaint by Amit Malviya, an official within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party.

Malviya’s complaint concerns a series of news reports published by the Wire which alleged that Meta had granted Malviya special privileges to flag other users’ social media posts for removal from the company’s Instagram platform without going through the platform’s typical content moderation process. The reports echoed previous concerns regarding the social media company’s alleged preferential treatment towards the BJP and its affiliates on its Facebook platform.

Meta has denied the Wire’s allegations and has not provided any indication that it plans legal action against the news website.

On 23 October, the Wire voluntarily retracted its reports and initiated an internal review after doubts were raised over the authenticity of documents used in its reporting. During the review, the Wire noted discrepancies in the material used and lapses in editorial oversight.

On 27 October, Malviya published his intention to file civil and criminal proceedings against the Wire concerning its already-retracted reports. The lodging of a formal complaint led to the Delhi police registering a First Information Report (FIR) against several of the Wire’s staff on a range of charges, including criminal defamation (Article 500). The FIR was then used by the Delhi police as a basis to carry out its searches of the Wire’s office and the residences of several members of staff. The Wire has in turn filed its own formal complaint against one of its staff members, Devesh Kumar, accusing him of providing fabricated material that was used to substantiate their reporting. According to reports, the police have yet to act on the complaint.

‘While the issues surrounding the accuracy of the Wire’s original reporting raise legitimate questions concerning the robustness of the Wire’s editorial processes, the disproportionate use of police powers against the Wire and its staff sends a chilling signal to journalists and independent voices across the country. By leaving journalists and newsrooms with no room for error in their reporting without the threat of criminal liability, the space for investigative journalism is severely undermined’, said Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

During the police searches, phones, laptops, and hard drives were seized, raising concerns over the potential exposure of journalistic sources. Additionally, the police allegedly did not provide hash values, which are used to detect whether the information stored on a device has been tampered with. This raises significant concerns following the revelations published last year around the use of Pegasus spyware to target the phones used by Indian journalists, writers and government critics. Included among those targeted is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, whose digital devices were seized by the police. The Wire was part of a consortium of news organisations that first reported on the existence of Pegasus spyware.

This latest development takes place at a time when freedom of expression is under marked decline in India. In 2022, the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index placed India at 150 out of 180 countries around the world, a fall from being placed at 142 the previous year. Similarly, Freedom House categorised India as being ‘Partly Free’ in its most recent Freedom in the World ranking, noting a dramatic escalation of attacks on press freedom in the country.

For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: ross.holder@pen-international.org