When a Journalist is Arrested and Treated Like a Terrorist For Little More Than Social Media Dissent
Manipur scribe Keshorechandra Wangkhem’s wife in Delhi for justice
NEW DELHI: “Police had abruptly entered our house on the night of November 21, 2018. We were being asked strange questions about our connections with outfits that we didn’t even know. Our entire housed was frisked as if my husband was not a journalist but a man with criminal record. Eventually they took him away with them. I didn’t know what to do then and who to contact. They had taken away my phone too on pretext of sending it for further investigations to establish our links with banned outfits.” Ranjita Elagham told the Citizen.
Ranjita is the wife of journalist Keshorechandra Wangkhem, a journalist who has been in detention since then under charges of sedition followed by National Security Act. Keshorechandra had uploaded a video on social media in which he has been seen as criticizing the BJP led state government in the state for comparing Rani Lakshmi Bai with the freedom fighters in Manipur who fought against colonial rule. Wangkhem, 39 was working with a local news channel as an anchor and reporter before his arrest.
“Initially he was arrested under laws of sedition. We got a bail order for him through the court on November 26 but the state government had taken his criticism so personally that later the same day he was arrested under NSA. And has not been released yet. I have come to Delhi to appeal to all of you to help us get him free,” Rajnita said. She was attending a press meet organised by the Human Rights Law Network in Delhi.
Wangkhem has been lodged at the Sajiwa central Jail in Imphal. The NSA advisory board had stated that there were sufficient grounds to keep the journalist in preventive detention for atleast 12 months. His detention was approved by Governor of the state Najma Heptullah. NSA was invoked after the local courts did not see a case fit to jail the scribe for a Facebook post.
This is not a first of a kind attempt to suppress the voice of a journalist and neither is one when journalist has been sent to bar for criticism of the government. The problem has been more acute in conflict ridden states like Jammu and Kashmir and part of North East. Last year in India 12 journalists were killed while performing their duties.India ranks at a low 136 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index even behind its neighbours.
The Kashmir valley in 2018 witnessed the targeting of journalists along with the assassination of Shujat Bukhari, a well known journalist and founder editor of Rising Kashmir. Another journalist Kamran Yousuf was arrested on charges--- that he strongly refuted--- of stone pelting in Srinagar.
More recently, Asif Sultan a journalist with the Kashmir Narrator was arrested after he did a cover story on slain militant Burhan Wani for the magazine locally published from Kashmir. Sultan was arrested under UAPA. Sultan was charged for having links with millitants in the valley and is in prison even today despite demands for his release by several organisation including the international Centre for the Protection of Journalists.
HRLN that is currently looking into the case of the Manipuri journalist believes that sedition remain a highly misunderstood law in India. Sedition in the old English law meant that saying a few words against the crown was a punishable offence.
“Sedition law is not understood properly- in the old English law, thinking or saying a few words in privacy against the crown was punishable. Things may be offensive and abhorrent but it has nothing to do with sedition law unless torts and words are supported by actions. Classic cases in Punjab and Kashmir where people who hadn’t actually acted against the State were said to be seditious, and the Supreme Court acquitted them both. We have initiated the Legal Defence of Defenders, where across India, a network of lawyers and a journalist is made so that any journalist who can’t find a lawyer or can’t say for one, can get one,” Colin Gonsalves, the founding president of the organisation and a senior advocate with the Supreme Court said.
Interestingly Justice Markandey Katju, a former Supreme Court judge often known for his controversial remarks has also come out in support of the Manipurjournalist and remarked his arrest as arbitrary and vindictive.
When Citizen approached him for his comments on the case, Katju stated that in his opinion these cases have no legal sanction. Anything that does not immediately spark violence is not seditious.
“Undemocratic politicians have lost their minds, people are allowed to dissent to the govt. in a democracy. In a democracy people have the right to criticize the govt. and democracy means people are supreme. There have been many cases where artists, cartoonist and journalists have been attacked. This is my appeal to Manipur’s people to become the leader and guide the way and start the movement.” Katju told the media.
It is pertinent to mention that three have been consistent demands by civil rights and human rights organisation against laws such as NSA, UAPA that carries stringent provisions for arresting people merely on the basis of suspicion. These organizations and individuals believe that National Security as a notion and the laws supplementing it has been used time and again to crack down on dissenting voices.
“In modern India, ‘the "state" is not free to act in any manner it likes, it is inconceivable that a civilized country would use preventive detention as a substitute for the criminal law. National Security Act has been misused and abused far too often as a political weapon of those in power against their political or ideological enemies and to curtail the dissent voice. NSA is dangerous to a secular democracy like India as it is extremely prejudicial to personal liberty and violates fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression. We strongly condemn the use of draconian law like NSA against Journalist, political and human rights activist working in the interest of people and demand immediate release of Journalist Kishorchandra and to repeal NSA, ” Shreeji Bhavsar, Advocate in HRLN, who is handling the case of Keshorechandra, told the Citizen.
Keshorechandra’s arrest that was initially ignored by the local media in Manipur has lately garnered tremendous support from different rights based bodies to organisations working for the welfare of journalists across India. Organizations such as Indian journalist union and International federation of journalists has condemned the BJP lead government in Manipur.