FAQ: What Are the UP Police FIRs Against The Wire Actually About?

A guide to help our readers fight misinformation about the FIRs against The Wire and Siddharth Varadarajan.

On April 11, in the middle of a nationwide lockdown on travel, police drove from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh to Delhi, to deliver summons relating to complaints made out against The Wire, and one of its founding editors, Siddharth Varadarajan. The two FIRs have been the basis for misinformed attacks and distortion. Here are some frequently asked (hostile) questions, and the real answers you need.

Isn’t the FIR for ‘fake news’ in Varadarajan’s tweet?

No. The first FIR never mentions ‘fake news’ or any tweet. The IPC sections cited in the FIR were for “creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes” and “disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant”.

The complaint is about a portion of an article published in The Wire, about the Adityanath government’s plans to go ahead with religious gatherings in Ayodhya – this was widely reported in the media. (For example, on March 17, on News18: “Ayodhya Admin Ignores Advisory Against Mass Gatherings, to Go Ahead With Ram Navami Mela”) – plus the chief minister’s own eventual participation in one in violation of the lockdown which began March 25.

A second FIR accuses “Siddharth” of tweeting “unverified claims” and cites, in addition to sections mentioned in the first FIR, two sections of the IT Act dealing with impersonation and the transmission of obscene material. However, no specific tweet is mentioned or identified in the complaint or FIR.

Still, didn’t The Wire share fake news about Yogi Adityanath? And didn’t Varadarajan tweet the same fake news?

No. Both the article and the tweet were accurate, except for a single error – they attributed to chief minister Adityanath a quote that had actually been made by Acharya Paramhans, an Ayodhya priest. The rest of the report and the tweet were accurate, sharing information that has been widely reported elsewhere.

That’s fake news!

It’s not. Errors appear in the best newspapers every day. The mark of a professional news organisation is how they act after an error is found. The Wire follows similar practices as, for example, The New York Times. When an error is found and corrected, we leave a note on the article highlighting the change. The same was done when this error was corrected, and the quote attributed to Paramhans.

How convenient to distinguish your “mistakes” from fake news.

There is a crucial difference between mistakes and misinformation. Understanding the difference is central to modern media literacy and being an educated citizen. Sadly, propaganda portals and fake-news websites want to blur that difference and confuse the public.

Errors occur in the best news platforms. They have protocols to avoid such errors in advance (cross-checking, referencing) and also to correct and acknowledge errors as soon as they are found.

On propaganda portals and party-funded media, the falsehoods are the actual point. When exposed, these are either not corrected, or simply deleted without public record.

Also read: When a Government Is Hostile to the Press

The article, which was on the coronavirus infections at the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters, engaged in communal politics by needlessly dragging in a Hindu religious ceremony.

No. Both that paragraph, and Varadarajan’s tweet, were countering a form of communal politics. They were pointing out that at the time the Tablighis were meeting, many religious institutions and leaders had failed to grasp the necessity of social distancing. As of that date, a large public event was still being planned for Ayodhya and the Adityanath government had given clearance for it.

The point is that, in mid-March, many communities – and a BJP chief minister – were refusing to cancel mass events. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first call for social distancing was made on March 19. The accusation that the Tablighi Jamaat organisers were deliberately seeking to spread the virus makes no sense in this light. If anything, the rank and file Jamaatis were victims of an overdue government decision.

The Ram Navami celebrations were cancelled, so that’s a distortion.

No, it’s absolutely not. On March 17, the district magistrate of Ayodhya said on the record, “This is part of the tradition and we will take precautions but there is no plan to cancel the Ram Navami mela” that was scheduled for March 25-April 2. The next day, Adityanath advised people to stay away but it was only on March 21, on the eve of the Janata Curfew, that the Adityanath government cancelled the event.

There was no correction, and if there was, it was delayed.

No. The article and tweet were published on March 31. The next day, April 1, Mritunjay Kumar (the media advisor to Adityanath) replied to Varadarajan’s tweet, denying that the chief minister had made the mis-attributed statement and threatening legal action. That was after 11.19 am.

At 2.43pm, the same afternoon, Varadarajan tweeted the correction (linked to the erroneous tweet). The article was corrected at the same time.

Even so, an FIR was filed, on a complaint by a police SHO, that evening and tweeted out again by Mrityunjay Kumar.

Also read: Amartya Sen on The Wire, the Police and Beyond

Well, how is this a ‘political vendetta’? Isn’t the police simply investigating according to procedure?  

No. What they did was an extraordinary, irresponsible action in the middle of a national lockdown. The police who arrived at Varadarajan’s door said they had driven from Ayodhya to deliver the summons. This is why the Editor’s Guild of India called the FIRs “an overreaction and an act of intimidation”.

(The Wire has no representation on the committee of the Editor’s Guild.)

At a time when travel is forbidden, and state resources are needed to manage the lockdown and relief efforts, the decision to send policemen from Ayodhya to Delhi speaks for itself. And their demand that Varadarajan appear in Ayodhya on April 14 – basically, impossible because of the lockdown – proves the “act of intimidation”.

Why would Adityanath care so much about The Wire anyway?

The Wire has been a leader in covering state violence, misgovernance and social distress in Adityanath’s UP – including stories that have received special mention at reporting awards.

But a week later, The Wire published fake news from Hoshiarpur – and this time they were criticised by a fact-checking website.

The report from Hoshiarpur was water-tight. It quoted the Deputy Commissioner, and was backed up with video – which was shared too.

In fact, The Wire ended up correcting the fact-checking website, which retracted its original assessment and issued a new story vindicating The Wire, with an apology.

Also read: When Freedom of the Press is Stricken With the Coronavirus

Why should I trust The Wire’s interpretation of the FIR controversy? 

You don’t have to. You can trust professional bodies like the Editors Guild of India and the Delhi Union of Journalists, which understand journalism. You can trust the international Committee to Protect Journalists, or the India chapter of PEN International, which know how to identify threats to free speech. These groups have all made statements condemning the FIRs.

You can also trust a list of literally hundreds of the smartest people in India and around the world. Understanding the situation, they have offered their credibility and signed a petition to support The Wire and Varadarajan.

The list of names is almost historic in scope. It includes Nobel Laureates, two former Chiefs of Naval Staff, former Justices of the Supreme Court and high courts, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Australia, a former BJP Union minister, a former Foreign Secretary, a former National Security Adviser,  a former Chief Election Commissioner, Booker-Prize winning authors, leading global public intellectuals, Padma Bhushan-winning writers and artists, chart-topping singers and legendary classical dancers, movie-stars and filmmakers, top international news editors, Ramon Magsaysay-winning social workers, and almost the entire top drawer of professors and scholars who work on India around the world.

Or else you could trust the WhatsApp forward you received. It’s up to you.