Glaring Intimidation Tactics in Nitish Govt's FIR Against Scribes Over Tweets on 'Paper Leak'

The sketchy FIR mentions two journalists of the same name. While police are undecided on who the investigation will focus on, the education department has advertised the FIR on a newspaper.

Patna: Within a month of issuing a written order for action against those who comment on social media on the Bihar government, its ministers and officials, along with the state’s MPs and MLAs, Bihar police has lodged an FIR against two Patna-based journalists, alleging that they spread “fake news” on a paper leak for the matriculation examination.

The FIR and police’s quickness to act reflects the workings of a state machinery trying to intimidate journalists who are critical of the Nitish-led NDA government.

Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB) had conducted the matriculation examination from February 17 this year. News of paper leaks followed soon after. The government eventually had to cancel the social science paper over allegations of leaks.

On February 20, rumours spread about a leak of the English paper. The education department jumped into action – and had an FIR lodged at the Kotwali Police station in Patna against two journalists who tweeted on the news.

The application for the FIR was submitted by Narendra Kumar Sinha, an official of BSEB, which falls under the state education department. It reads, “Utkarsh Singh wrote on his Twitter account about the English paper leak and subsequently, pages of the said exam paper were uploaded by him on Twitter. Apart from him one Rahul Yadav too spread fake information about the paper leak.”

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“On examining the pages of question papers uploaded on social media by these two persons with the previous years’ papers at the committee level, it was found that the viral page was of the paper of the year 2020. These two persons have attempted to spread rumours and deceive people by calling last year’s question paper this year’s,” FIR says. 

The FIR has been lodged under sections 417 (punishment for cheating), 418 (cheating with the knowledge that it is likely to cause wrongful loss), 419 (punishment for cheating by personation), 420/120 (cheating/concealing design to commit offence punishable with imprisonment) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 10 of Bihar Conduct of Examinations Act and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act.

Two screenshots of the tweets were attached with the application. Both were of tweets by Utkarsh Singh. However, one tweet was by an Utkarsh Singh who is a journalist with the India Today group’s ‘Bihar Tak’ channel and the other was by an Utkarsh Singh who is associated with TV9 Bharatvarsh. The latter is currently working in Delhi.

The application has nothing on which Utkarsh Singh has actually spread the rumour of the paper leak. 

The Wire examined both Utkarsh Singhs’ February 20 tweets and found that TV9 journalist had shared the page of the exam paper on the morning of February 20.

“This is allegedly today’s English question paper. Exam starts at 10 am. Question leaked already,” the TV9 Bharatvarsh journalist tweeted.

On February 21, he tweeted, “As per reports, the question didn’t match and was proved wrong.”

Utkarsh Singh, a journalist associated with India Today group, tweeted on February 20, “There are reports of paper leaks for the fourth consecutive day of the Bihar Board matriculation examination. The photo of the paper went viral on WhatsApp long before the exam started. The paper was cancelled yesterday after the paper leak issue was raised in the state assembly, but people are asking, what about the rest of the papers? The board should clarify this.”

His tweet had no photo attachments.

A person named Rahul Yadav, meanwhile, copied the tweet of the TV9 journalist and replied to the tweet of India Today Group journalist.

Police, however, have already begun an investigation without clarifying who – or which Utkarsh Singh – should be investigated.

When The Wire contacted the Kotwali police station, SHO Sunil Kumar Singh said, “The case is being looked into. A cyber cell is investigating the tweets. After receiving the report from the cyber cell, it will be decided which Utkarsh Singh should be questioned.”

Singh denied that both Utkarsh Singhs had been called in for this case. However, well placed sources told The Wire that soon after the FIR was lodged, the police had called both and asked them to join the investigation. 

Both the Utkarsh Singhs’ tweets were retweeted by several people. Some local news channels such as First Bihar-JharkhandETV Bharat, covered the news with photos of the same exam paper. However, the FIR was lodged against only the two journalists.

‘Told to get an FIR lodged’

Most beguilingly, the official who had submitted the application for the FIR told The Wire that he does not know which Utkarsh Singh he wanted to name.

Narendra Kumar Sinha said, “I was given print outs of screenshots of tweets by my senior and was told to get an FIR lodged. So I did it. I know nothing about any Utkarsh Singh.”

The question arises as to whether the tweets fall in the realm of fake news at all.

The TV9 journalist had used the word “allegedly” in his tweet and had later also clarified that the paper was shared as a mischief.  The India Today Group journalist clearly wrote in his tweet that there were “reports” of paper leaks. His tweet does not claim that any paper was leaked.

Arvind Kumar, a practicing lawyer at Patna high court said, “Ideally, no FIR should have been filed on what the two journalists wrote on Twitter. The FIRs have no weight and are sure to be dismissed by the court.”

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav has also been vocal on the issue. 

“Chief minister Nitish Kumar has lodged FIR against journalists for breaking the news of the exam paper leak. The ‘topper scam’ chief minister will give prize and promotion to those senior officials who leak exam papers every year but lodge FIR against journalists and social activists,” he said.

Neither journalists were available for comment.

Intimidation tactics

The fact that the education department not only got an FIR lodged against the journalists but also issued an advertisement regarding this in the newspaper was taken as a sign that the department was attempting to intimidate journalists.

This is not the first time the Department of Education has made an FIR on journalists public through advertisements. In November 2019, the Bihar Vidyalaya Examination Committee had bought a full-page advertisement in another newspaper, describing Dainik Bhaskar’s report series as “false, fake, fabricated and misleading.” 

Last year, during the lockdown, government officials had lodged FIRs against many journalists for reporting on mismanagement of quarantine centres in Bihar.  

Kamal Kant Sahay, general secretary of the Bihar Working Journalists Union, told The Wire that the organisation condemned the FIR and the path the government was on.

“We are in favour of freedom of expression of journalists and have often conveyed to the government that it should be preserved at any cost,” he said.