Tamil Nadu Police Jails News Portal Founder for Stories on Lockdown Shortcomings

The complaint against Andrew Sam Raja Pandian claims two reports in SimpliCity.in "could provoke healthcare workers and PDS employees against the state". The opposition alleges AIADMK minister S.P. Velumani has instigated the arrest.

New Delhi: The Coimbatore police have arrested the founder of SimpliCity, a hyperlocal news portal, for two reports that highlighted shortcomings faced by government healthcare professionals and alleged corruption by some employees of the public distribution system (PDS), making this the first documented case of a media head being jailed during the COVID-19 and lockdown crisis by the authorities for critical reportage.

Andrew Sam Raja Pandian was charged under sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Epidemic Diseases Act after a complaint was filed by M. Sundararajan, an assistant commissioner of the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation. The complainant claims that the reports could ‘provoke’ healthcare professionals and PDS employees against the government and “derail efforts to fight the coronavirus”.

Sources in Coimbatore told The Wire on Saturday that the police is determined to keep Pandian in custody and ensure he does not get bail.

According to SimpliCity, the First Information Report (FIR) says the complaint describes the two news reports as ‘false’ and ‘provocative against the state government’. He was produced before a magistrate and remanded in judicial custody and has been lodged in the Avinashi Sub-jail. The portal added that before Sam was arrested, a reporter and photographer who were detained for more than 10 hours were let off.

According to reports, Sam was arrested for offences under Sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a civil servant), 505 (i) (statements conducing to public mischief) of the IPC and Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act.

The first story, ‘No timely and adequate food, allege UG and PG Student Doctors at CMCH Hostel‘, reports that doctors who are pursuing their UG and PG at the CMCH hostel were forced to protest after “administrative mismanagement” led to them not receiving timely and adequate food/

The second story, titled ‘Looting at ration shops during lockdown, govt’s grant of Rs.1000 swindled, lament public‘, claimed that ration shop workers are “looting” provisions meant for the poor. The report says people complained about ‘swindling’ of provisions to the district collector, who “with immediate effect ordered the concerned Tahsildar’s to probe the issue and ensure people receive the relief without any discrepancies”.

A report by The News Minute said that the issue of food shortage at the CMCH was widely reported and that there is evidence of protest by doctors. “Following the protests, action was taken against the Dean of the college and even the Medical Superintendent was issued a show cause notice,” the website said.

John, a source close to Sam, told The News Minute that SimpliCity is being targeted because it is a “small organisation and can be squashed”.

The move came in for wide condemnation from the police and the media fraternity.

Condemning the arrest, DMK president M.K. Stalin accused state minister S.P. Velumani of “instigating the arrest” and demanded that journalists should be allowed to function independently. “The minister is blatantly misusing his power to stop criticisms against him,” he said.

The portal had earlier carried the statement of DMK MLA N. Karthik accusing the AIADMK and Velumani of being absent from relief activities.

Congress MP Jothimani had tweeted her condemnation and seeking the release of Sam.

Meanwhile, Chennai Press Club joint secretary Bharathi Thamizhan said it was ‘journalistic duty to point out mistakes so that the government could take appropriate action.’ “The Corporation has acted irresponsibly in this case, and so has the police. The arrest is not just against freedom of media or freedom of expression, it is fundamentally anti-democratic.” After the Chennai Press Club condemned the incident, Thamizhan added that the Press Council of India should intervene. “The PCI should not discriminate against digital media at this juncture, and act immediately.”

Stating that the complaint was motivated, the Centre of Media Persons for Change has demanded that the complaints against the founder be immediately withdrawn and demanded his release.