PUCL Bulletin, February 2002

Faridabad editor arrested to silence a newspaper

(The Editors Guild of India appointed a three-member fact finding committee consisting of Ajit Bhattacharjee, Om Thanvi, and G.S. Bhargava to inquire into the circumstances of the arrest of Satish Kumar, Editor of the Mazdoor Morcha of Faridabad on August 18, 2001. This was in response to complaints of improper legal procedures followed by the local Superintendent of Police, Ranbir Sharma, to silence the Editor and his paper. We reproduce below the report of the Guild - Chief Editor).

The evidence available to the committee points clearly to flagrant misuse of executive authority to arrest an editor and silence a local newspaper, which had criticised administrative officials by name, especially the local Superintendent of Police. If the allegations were false, the law provides legal procedures for redress, which were not attempted. In any case, such misuse of authority to silence the press cannot be condoned. In addition to stopping publication of a paper it leads, as in the present instance, to inhibiting journalists from doing their duty to report valid cases of corruption and misuse of authority.

At the same time, the line between, legitimate exposure of corruption and unsubstantiated personal allegations must be maintained by the media if it is to retain credibility. In this case, we feel it necessary to record our concern with the provocative language and tone of some of the allegations published in the paper without stated source of substantiation.

Another issue that figured in this case concerns allegations published in the paper without stated source or substantiation.

Another issue that figured in this case concerns allegations of the false circulation figures claimed to secure advertisements. This was used to buttress the charges against the Editor with evidence that we found to be full of holes. But they also drew attention to the unprincipled manner in which government advertisements are given to district papers, creating occasion for trading charges of corruption and blackmail.

From the start, the arrest of Satish Kumar on August 18, 2001, showed signs of misuse of authority. The FIR was registered at the unusual hour of 3.15 am and he was picked up from his residence four hours later. The FIR itself is vague. It charges the "owners and publishers" of nine local papers with furnishing false circulation figures and exercising undue pressure on HUDA officials to obtain undue advertisements. No names were mentioned. The FIR stated that advertisements worth lakhs of rupees had been issued a day or two before the budget lapsed on March 31, 2000, and that certain officials had complained that they were pressurized into issuing advertisements by threats of publishing derogatory stories about them.

It was on the basis of such unsubstantiated allegations that Satish Kumar was promptly arrested in contravention of Supreme Court rulings laying down that no arrests should be made on "merely allegation of commission of offence and suspicion of complicity in offence." Though nine papers were mentioned, nobody else was taken into custody. Another journalist, Ajay Bothra, was taken to the police station and released. Satish Kumar was clearly the target.
Inquires by the Guild team reveal further inconsistencies. The FIR had been registered in August 2001 though the offence was said to have occurred in March 2000. Neither the HUDA Administrator, Vijendra Kumar, nor the Estate Officer M.S. Yadav, was posted in Faridabad at the time. When asked why the case was filed, they said it was in response to a complaint "from outside". Ms. G. Anupama, who was Administrator in March 2000, and now posted in Chandigarh, said no irregularity had come to her notice.

Further, the Committee was informed that according to Haryana Government instructions advertisements were to be issued only by the Director of Public Relations in Chandigarh. No explanation was available as to how advertisements had been issued in Faridabad. No details were provided to support the charge of inflated circulation figures, which, in any case, comes under the exclusive purview of the Registrar of Newspapers of India.
Despite these inconsistencies, Satish Kumar was denied bail by the duty magistrate and remanded to police custody. His appeal to the Sessions Court was also rejected. The date for hearing his bail application in the Punjab & Haryana High Court was set for three months later, which would have extended his pre-trial detention to nearly five months. The matter was then taken to the Supreme Court, which directed the High Court to dispose of it within a week. On October 8, 2001 he was released on bail after seven weeks in jail.

Meanwhile, the Faridabad police took steps to prevent publication of the 'Mazdoor Morcha'. The printer of the paper discontinued printing and no other printer in Faridabad was willing to print it. We are told that efforts to print it in Delhi have also been blocked. A criminal suit has been filed against Satish Kumar by name on a charge of using a false print line. At the same time, the District Magistrate has issued a notice for cancellation of the registration of the paper. When these formalities are completed, 'Mazdoor Morcha' may be finally silenced.

The Superintendent of Police, Ranbir Sharma, complained to the committee that Satish Kumar made a practice of publishing scandalous and unfounded personal allegations against officials, which was why the administration, including the judiciary, was hostile to him. A lead Item had been published accusing him of buying a house for Rs 18 lakhs of which Rs 10 lakhs was paid in black money, with no supporting evidence. Other unsupported allegations of corruption and dishonesty against him had been published.

The committee examined copies of 'Mazdoor Morcha', which had headlined such allegations. They were suggestive and unsubstantiated. We felt that rather than curbing corruption, they damaged the credibility of the Press. However, if false, the correct procedure for dealing with them was to sue the offender for defamation. Misuse of police powers to silence the editor or paper suggested that that there could be elements of truth in the allegations.

We found that journalists in Faridabad were reluctant to report on such events.
We were informed that even editors of Delhi newspapers were unwilling to publish news critical of Ranbir Sharma. One reason for his influence, we were told, was that he is the son-in-law of the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, I.D. Swami. -- Ajit Bhattacharjee

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