Listen to this article:
New Delhi: Following his arrest on March 2 for allegedly publishing “divisive” comments about ruling Congress legislators, Raipur journalist Nilesh Sharma has been charged with having “obscene material” and “indulging in prostitution” by the Chhattisgarh police; a move which journalist’s bodies have claimed is part of the ongoing persecution of journalists in the state.
On Sunday, March 6, the Chhattisgarh police issued a press release, bearing no signature of any police personnel, claiming to have found “objectionable” content on Sharma’s phone, the Indian Express reported.
This included supposed evidence of him “indulging in prostitution” and “obscene chats with both genders”. The statement also claimed that Sharma’s phone had documents and phone recordings of a “confidential nature”.
The statement describes the purported call records as a “sensitive confidential document” that can only be accessed by “police or other agencies” after following the procedure laid out, the Hindustan Times reported. As such, the police claims, an officer was brought under investigation.
Regarding the chats, the police statement accused Sharma of being in contact with “women involved in acts of moral turpitude” and even accuses Sharma of “blackmailing in the guise of journalism”.
On Monday, Sharma was transferred to Bilaspur jail. His family has alleged that they were threatened to not talk to the media and that they have not been allowed to visit Sharma.
Sharma was arrested on March 2 on the complaint of a self-styled Congress worker Khilawan Nishad which claimed that his work intended to “draw a wedge among the leaders and office bearers of Congress.”
Sharma is the editor of online portal India Writers and the complaint took objection to what he published in his satire column, Ghurwa ki Maati. The characters in the column were alleged to bear resemblances to state Congress ministers and legislators.
The column, as well as Sharma’s other work, reportedly criticised individuals close to Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel in the past.
The last column Sharma published before his arrest talked about the ‘open secret’ of the Congress’s power sharing deal between Baghel and Chhattisgarh health minister T.S. Singhdeo where each would supposedly take up the chief minister’s mantle for two-and-a-half years after the party won the assembly election in 2018.
On the basis of Nishad’s complaint, which accused Sharma of publishing falsehoods, calling him a member of the “Godi media” (a term used to describe journalists and news outlets which show a bias towards the ruling NDA government), Sharma was arrested and booked under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 505 (2) (statements creating or promoting enmity between classes), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 505 (1)(b) (making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report).
The new charges
Following the police’s purported discovery of objectionable material on Sharma’s phone, he was charged under three additional laws: Section 67 of the IT Act (publishing or transmitting material containing sexually explicit acts) and Sections 4 and 5 of the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (PITA) (punishment for living on the earnings of prostitution and procuring or inducting a person for the sake of prostitution, respectively).
Speaking to the Quint, Sharma’s brother Ritesh, who manages the advertising for India Writers, claimed that the portal had never published falsehoods and that the political satire column was published even when BJP’s Raman Singh was in power, although it was called Mukhiya ke Mukhari at the time.
Singh, himself, claimed that the ruling Congress party was targeting journalists despite bringing in laws to protect them, ostensibly referring to the Chhattisgarh Protection of Mediapersons Act, which was introduced in 2019 but never came into force.
The persecution of journalists in the state has been a persistent issue, allege journalists. Speaking to the Quint, vice-president of the Raipur Press Club Praphull Thakur called the government’s behaviour “purely dictatorial”.
Calling it “undemocratic”, Thakur alleged that in the last three-and-a-half years of Congress rule in the state, over 100 cases have been registered against journalists.