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New Delhi: Two journalists – Samridhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, of the HW News Network – who had been named in a first information report (FIR) at the Kumarghat police station in Tripura and later arrested in connection with their reportage of Tripura violence, have been given bail by a local court.
The two journalists have been reporting from the ground this week, including investigating reported instances of vandalism and attacks on mosques in the state, in connection with the violence that gripped the region from October.
The two journalists were initially allowed by the Tripura police to leave the state, but then were later detained in Assam, apparently at the behest of cops in Tripura. Late on Sunday night, they were taken back to Tripura and arrested.
We have been detained at the Nilambazar police station, Karimganj, Assam. We were informed by the officer in-charge of Nilambazar PS that SP of Gomti District gave the orders for our detention.
Official statement by @hwnewsnetwork . @Jha_Swarnaa pic.twitter.com/l3JPKUq7kw
— Samriddhi K Sakunia (@Samriddhi0809) November 14, 2021
Sakunia and Jha were produced in the Gomati district court of the Udaipur subdivision of Tripura on Monday and were granted bail, the journalists’ lawyer Pijush Biswas confirmed to The Wire.
The two were given bail on bond of Rs 75,000 each and have to appear before the Kakraban Police Station tomorrow, Biswas said. The journalists will not be allowed to leave the state yet, it has been reported.
In a press statement issued by the Director General of Police, Agartala, the police states, “Instead of coming to Agartala, the two reporters made an escape towards Assam.” The statement also details the charges against the two journalists. It alleges that the reporters were creating tensions between communities and “fabricating, concealing of records in furtherance of criminal conspiracy”.
A police official from Tripura, on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Wire, “After taking permission from Chief Judicial Magistrate court they were arrested and would be produced before the court in Udaipur Sub division after interrogation.”
In a video posted on Sunday prior to her detention, Sakunia is seen detailing her detention. She says, “We are not being given any order of detention or an FIR, when asked about the orders we were not given any information, we are being taken 100 km away without any orders.” She also goes on to state, “We are feeling helpless, there is no law and order being followed, please help us restore the law and order.”
The HW News Network said in a statement that though the Assam police don’t have a case against Sakunia or Jha, the Tripura police had asked them to detain the journalists.
“This is sheer harassment and targeting of the press on the part of Tripura police and Tripura government to suppress us from from reporting the facts of the case,” the statement read.
The FIR was registered on November 14 after a complaint by local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Kanchan Das. The report cites three sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) – relating to “criminal conspiracy”, “intentional insult to provoke breach of peace” and “promoting enmity between different groups”.
According to reports, Das’s complaint claimed that the two reporters had allegedly made an “instigating speech” against the Hindu community and the Tripura government while meeting people from the Muslim community in the Paul Bazaar area. The complaint also claims the two had ‘blamed’ the VHP and Bajrang Dal for burning a mosque in the same area.
Das also said the journalists were part of a “criminal conspiracy” to disrupt Tripura’s communal harmony and malign the VHP and the Tripura government.
The reporters, who were in a hotel in Dharmanagar, spoke to The Wire. about what happened.
“The police arrived yesterday at the hotel around 10:30 pm and served the FIR copy in the morning at 5:30 am,” Sakunia said. “We were supposed to leave for the capital, Agartala, but were not allowed to move despite [our] full cooperation.”
Sakunia and Jha have since been allowed to leave the hotel and have been asked to report to the state on November 21.
Sakunia added, “We are being intimidated and threatened because we are highlighting what transpired on the ground. Is journalism a crime? I am being intimidated for doing my job and documenting the violence.”
VHP filed complaint against me and @Jha_Swarnaa FIR has been filed under the section: 120(B), 153(A)/ 504.
Copy of FIR pic.twitter.com/a8XGC2Wjc5
— Samriddhi K Sakunia (@Samriddhi0809) November 14, 2021
The police reportedly collected the two reporters’ transportation details, and insisted on their Aadhaar card information on the pretext of providing “security”. Only when they were checking out of the hotel did they found out that an FIR had been lodged against them.
The notice said that a case is being filed “against you & others (sic) miscreants” and that there were “reasonable grounds to question you”.
Confirming the charges against the reporters, sub-divisional police officer Kumarghat Gamanjay Reang told The Wire:
“Based on an FIR, today we went to meet the journalists who were staying in a hotel in Dharmanagar subdivision of Tripura’s North district. We took their permission and spoke with them for basic information. We served them notice. They requested us to give them some time to appear with their advocate. So permission was given. And, I guess they already left [the state].”
In a statement, journalist Swarna Jha said:
“We have been in Tripura for the past three days. Police accompanied us all day. We did not get an official byte from the police. We got a call asking for our travelling details, we were asked to share details on the pretext of security reasons. We found out early this morning that a complaint had been registered against us by the members of VHP, is reporting from the ground a criminal offence?”
Crackdown on critics
The Tripura police is reportedly contesting claims that Sakunia had made in her reports, of the vandalism and the burning-down of mosques in the state.
The police have also cracked down on activists and lawyers who have published reports about alleged vandalism in the state’s mosques.
Just last week, the police filed charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against two lawyers and 102 Twitter users for posting information about the violence in Tripura.
The two lawyers were part of a team that had authored a fact-finding report on the violence. They are: Ansar Indori, secretary of the National Confederation of Human Rights, and Mukesh, a member of the Union for Civil Liberties. They have been charged under Section 13 of the UAPA.
Both lawyers have also been charged under IPC Sections 120 (B), 153 (A), 153 (B), 469, 471, 503 and 504 – among others. As such, the charges include “criminal conspiracy”, “promoting enmity between groups”, “forgery” and “provoking breach of peace”.
The duo was part of a four-member fact-finding team that had visited the state on October 29-30 to document the tensions in the region, following reports of anti-Muslim violence.
The report, entitled ‘Humanity under attack in Tripura: Muslim lives matter’, documented vandalism in at least 12 mosques, nine shops and three houses belonging to Muslim families – all of which had allegedly transpired during protests in 51 places in Tripura, against attacks on Hindu minorities in Bangladesh.
The report released by lawyers also demanded an inquiry committee headed by a retired high court judge.
Similarly, the Tripura police charged over a hundred people under the UAPA for protesting, but also for simply mentioning the communal violence in the state’s northern districts on various social media platforms.
Cases have been filed against 68 Twitter accounts, 32 Facebook accounts and two YouTube accounts. The cases, first filed at the West Agartala police station, have since been transferred to the state’s crime branch.
With inputs from Tanmoy Chakraborty from Tripura.
Note: This article was first published at 2:05 pm on November 14, 2021, and updated at 5:15 pm on the same day with details of Sakunia’s and Jha’s detention in Assam. It was updated again at 11:30 am on November 15 with information that the two journalists had been taken back to Tripura and arrested. It was further updated with news of their bail at 6.10 pm on November 15.