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India
09.11.22
Urgent Interventions

India: Independent media outlet and journalists targeted

URGENT APPEAL - THE OBSERVATORY

IND 006 / 1122 / OBS 083
Raids / Seizure /
Harassment
India
November 9, 2022

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in India.

Description of the situation:

The Observatory has been informed about the coordinated raids conducted on the office of the news website The Wire in New Delhi, and the residences of the media outlet’s founding editors Messrs Siddharth Vardarajan, M.K. Venu, and Sidharth Bhatia, deputy editor Ms Jahnavi Sen, and staff member Mr Mithun Kidambi in New Delhi and Mumbai, as well as about the seizure of their electronic devices. The Wire is an independent online media outlet established in 2015 and since then has published numerous pieces of investigative journalism. Several news stories published by The Wire have been critical of the policies and actions of the central and state governments in India.

On the evening of October 31, 2022, a large contingent of Delhi Police Crime Branch officers conducted coordinated raids at The Wire’s office in New Delhi as well as at the residences of Messrs Vardarajan, Venu, and Ms Sen in New Delhi, and Mr Bhatia in Mumbai. The Wire’s lawyer was manhandled and denied access to The Wire’s office while the raids were being conducted. On November 1, 2022, at around 2:30 in the morning, raids were conducted at the residence of Mr Kidambi in Mumbai. The police did not present any search warrant in any of the raids.

The police seized 16 electronic devices from the office, and phones, laptops and tablets from the above-mentioned individuals. All of them were asked by the police officers to provide them with the passwords of their personal and professional email accounts, and to remove the passcodes of all their devices. The police refused to provide The Wire staff members with the hash value of the seized phones, computers and tablets. The hash value is a numeric value of an electronic device that works as a digital “fingerprint” and is a critical tool to assess potential tampering after seizure of a device.

These searches and seizures followed a First Information Report (FIR) registered by the Delhi police on alleged charges of “cheating”, “forgery”, “defamation”, and “criminal conspiracy”. The basis of this FIR is a complaint filed on October 27, 2022, by Mr. Amit Malviya, head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s National Information and Technology Department, against The Wire in relation to a series of articles published by the media outlet in early October 2022. The articles claimed that the multinational technology conglomerate Meta had granted Mr. Malviya the ability to remove any Instagram posts without any due process. On October 23, 2022, The Wire had retracted all the articles, as an internal review revealed that the researcher who wrote them had used falsified documents in the story. In another statement, The Wire publicly apologized to its readers and announced its decision to conduct an internal review of its recent coverage of Meta. On October 29, 2022, The Wire had also filed a complaint against the researcher with the Delhi Police. Yet, Mr. Malviya filed the complaint and the Delhi police pursued the raids and seizures.

The Observatory condemns the harassment against The Wire, its editors, and staff members, which seems unnecessary and disproportionate, considering The Wire’s public retraction, announcement of subsequent internal review, and submission of a police complaint against its researcher. The Observatory believes this action is deliberately used as a pretext to intimidate and ultimately silence The Wire’s independent reporting and legitimate criticism, especially of the BJP.

The Observatory expresses its utmost concern over the rampant deterioration of the right to freedom of expression, including media freedom, in India, which ranks 150th out of 180 countries surveyed in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s 2022 World Press Index. Several journalists and online critics, including Mohammad Zubair and Siddique Kappan, have been subjected to arbitrary detention and judicial harassment on trumped-up charges in retaliation to their online and offline criticism of the ruling party. Many journalists, including Siddharth Varadarajan and M.K. Venu, have been subjected to online surveillance, including through the use of the spyware Pegasus, as reported by The Wire and international media in July 2021.

The Observatory urges the Indian authorities to put an immediate end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against The Wire, its editors, and staff members, and all independent journalists in India, and to ensure the right to freedom of expression is protected, respected and promoted in the country, in line with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a state party.

Actions requested:

Please write to the authorities of India, urging them to:

i. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical integrity and psychological well-being of The Wire’s editors and staff members, including Siddharth Vardarajan, M.K. Venu, Sidharth Bhatia, Jahnavi Sen, and Mithun Kidambi;

ii. Put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against The Wire, as well as against its editors and all independent journalists and online and offline critics in India, and ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals;

iii. Guarantee, in all circumstances, the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in international human rights law, and particularly in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Addresses:

  • Mr. Narendra Damodardas Modi, Prime Minister of India, E-mail: connect@mygov.nic.in, Twitter: @narendramodi
  • Mr. Amit Shah, Union Minister of Home Affairs of India, Email: dirfcra-mha@gov.in
  • Mr. Ajay Kumar Bhalla, Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs of India, Email: hshso@nic.in
  • Mr. D. Y. Chandrachud, Chief Justice of India, Supreme Court of India, Email: supremecourt@nic.in
  • Mr. Shri Devendra Kumar Singh, IAS, Secretary General Chief Executive Officer
    of the National Human Rights Commission of India, Email: sgnhrc@nic.in, Twitter: @India_NHRC
  • Mr. Indrajeet Kumar, Focal Point on Human Rights Defenders, National Human Rights Commission of India, Email: hrd-nhrc@nic.in
  • H.E. Mr. Indra Mani Pandey, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Email: india.geneva@mea.gov.in

Please also write to the diplomatic representations of India in your respective countries.

***
Paris-Geneva, November 9, 2022

Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

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