COVID-19: CPJ Urges Indian Authorities to Stop 'Assaulting' Journalists Covering Lockdown

Journalist in Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai complained of harassment by police.

New Delhi: The Committee to Protect Journalists has released a statement asking Indian authorities to stop assaulting journalists and permit them to work freely without restrictions.

The CPJ made reference to the assaults on four journalists on March 24 as the country entered a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus and noted that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had issued a statement reiterating that journalists were exempt from the lockdown.

“Journalists are exempted from the ongoing lockdown in India because they provide vital news and information about the coronavirus outbreak,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “Indian police must cease harassing and attacking them, and authorities must investigate attacks against journalists and ensure that those responsible are held to account.”

Ambiguity surrounding the lockdown measures imposed in the wake of fears over the coronavirus pandemic have left room for harassment of journalists by law enforcement officials. On Monday night, media personnel who were returning home after duty hours faced harassment by the Hyderabad city police.

According to a report in The Hindu, its Telangana chief of bureau Ravi Reddy was abused and assaulted on Monday night by two sub-inspectors and three constables of Begumpet police station even after he showed them papers identifying himself as a journalist.

The incident took place around 10:15 pm when Reddy was on his way home on the first day of the lockdown.

The issue was then brought to the notice of DGP M. Mahender Reddy, Hyderabad commissioner of police Anjani Kumar, DCP (North) Kalmeshwar Shingenavar and other police officials, who enquired about the incident from Reddy.

The general secretary of Telangana Union of Working Journalists K. Virahat Ali told the CPJ that a delegation had met the state director-general of police who had promised to take action against the officers who attacked journalists.

As per the government order, print and electronic media have been recognised as essential services during the lockdown for containment of the spread of COVID-19 in Telangana.

Close to a dozen journalists, including women, were waiting for barricades to be removed and, after ascertaining their identities as journalists, requested the police to allow them to pass through as they were a part of essential services. The police then verbally abused them, got into a heated argument with them and then forced them to take some other route.

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After the barrage of lathi-charge and harassment, the journalists took up the issue of violation of exemptions to the media granted by the state government with senior police officials.

The incident has prompted concerns over intimidation of journalists during the remainder of the lockdown.

Delhi journalist Navin Kumar tweeted that the Delhi police had harassed him and, after taking away his car keys, snatching his wallet and phone, had beaten and hurled verbal abuses at him. “I am writing this so people know that there is a great difference between what we speak, what we write and the reality we live in,” Kumar wrote.

Kumar told the CPJ that the police stopped his car at a checkpoint for allegedly violating the lockdown and refused to let him go and started beating him, even after he showed the officers his press card. The police officers, who pushed him inside a police van and punched him, release him only after other vehicles started lining up near the barricade and others witnessed the attack, according to Newslaundry.

Kumar also told the CPJ that he was drafting a complaint to the Delhi police commissioner, and that he knew the identities of two of the officers who attacked him. The Delhi traffic police also responded to a tweet by Kumar and said that the matter was being forwarded to the Delhi police for “necessary action.”

The incident comes despite a notice by the central government asking states and Union territories to ensure that print and electronic media outlets remain operational. The notice read “at this juncture, robust and essential dissemination networks” were of utmost importance. “The proper functioning of these networks is required not only to create awareness among people and to give important messages but also to keep the nation updated of the latest status,” the notice read.

Another journalist said that the Mumbai police was harassing the media personnel and office staff members involved the transportation of those who were reporting.

The CPJ also said that the police in Hyderabad had beaten Mendu Srinivas, the political bureau chief of Telugu-language daily Andhra Jyothy, and hit Mohammed Hussain, a reporter for the English news website Siasat, for allegedly violating the lockdown.

As the lockdown came into effect across several parts of the country, hundreds of people were booked for violating norms and were issued warnings of arrest with jail terms up to a year if the violations continued.

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According to a report in the Hindustan Times, there was confusion at several places in Punjab as the police stopped commercial vehicles carrying essentials. In Punjab’s Khanna, the alleged violators were forced to perform sit-ups as punishments for coming out of their homes by the police.

The Mumbai police filed 31 cases against violators and a large number of people were asked to return to their homes. In Mumbai’s Kalyan’s Dombivli area, the police forced a group of youngsters to do sit-ins for coming out on bikes in violation of the lockdown.

Over 200 cases were filed against around 1,000 people for violating protocols in Uttar Pradesh across 16 districts, where a complete lockdown was announced on Sunday. A Lucknow resident told HT that she was stopped at several places when she went to buy goods for the Navratri festival. “Potatoes was being sold for Rs 40 a kg, which was earlier available for Rs 30. Tomatoes were for Rs 50 per kg…,” she said.