The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed all criminal proceedings against two women journalists, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarnja Jha who were arrested by the Tripura Police while covering the anti-Muslim violence in the state and their employer HW News Network.
The duo have been granted bail by the Tripura court a day after their arrest on 14 November.
A Bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud also sought the response of Tripura government to the plea filed by the two journalists and the HW News Network seeking quashing of FIRs registered against them.
“First step towards winning the case,” Samriddhi said.
Tripura police had charged the journalists with spreading communal disharmony when they were covering the Hindutva assaults on minorities. They also face charges of “fabricating and concealing records” about the anti-Muslim violence, apparently as part of “a criminal conspiracy”.
Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarnja Jha have challenged Tripura Police’s allegations saying that they were reporting on facts and stories narrated by the victims.
“The journalists were picked up and then there was the FIR. They have now been granted bail. But another FIR is also registered. The difficulty that is faced is that you report the news, 1 FIR is registered, and then you register a second really to say that we have now established that in the first FIR, the journalists are wrong. This is really untenable and not justified,” advocate Siddharth Luthra, representing the journalists, told the Supreme Court .
Week-long assaults on Muslims
Tripura’s BJP government and state police have been claiming that there was no law and order problem in the state and no mosques were burnt by Hindutva groups despite media including Maktoob reported several anti-Muslim crimes across the northeast state.
Maktoob reported more than two dozen hate crimes against Muslims including mosque vandalisation, attacks against Muslim houses, shops, and hawkers, molesting Muslim women, and anti-Muslim and genocidal slogans during the rallies.
Photos and videos accessed by Maktoob showed violent right-wing mobs who wear saffron clothes and carry swords raising anti-Muslim slogans during protests organised by Viswa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Jagran Manch, Bajrang Dal, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Safiqur Rahman, an activist associated with Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) Tripura earlier said to Maktoob that the Muslims in the state were living with fear during the week-long violence.
“The situation in Tripura is continuously deteriorating. Muslims are being threatened not to contact any media about the violence. Or else their life will be in danger. No state media is reporting these incidents,” Sultan, a local Muslim activist had said to Maktoob last in October this year.
UAPAs over reports, social media posts
More than 100 people including journalists, lawyers, Muslim scholars, politicians, and rights activists have been booked under draconian UAPA and several sections of IPC so far after they carried out fact-finding visits to violence-hit areas and shared the news on social media regarding Tripura violence against Muslims.
The first of these UAPA cases were filed against two lawyers, Ansar Indori and Mukesh, who were part of a fact-finding team investigating the violence against minorities in the state. Charges were filed against them after the fact-finding team’s report, ‘Humanity under attack in Tripura; #Muslim lives matter’, was published which highlighted the vandalisation of at least 12 mosques, nine shops and three houses belonging to Muslims.
In another complaint filed on 3 November, Tripura police had claimed 102 social media accounts were responsible for spreading “objectionable news items/statements,” and the account holders were charged under draconian UAPA.
The 102 social media account holders (68 Twitter profiles, 32 Facebook profiles, and 2 YouTubers) include Jamaat-e-Islami Hind vice president Mohammad Salim Engineer, former Delhi Minorities Commission chairman Zafarul Islam Khan, Popular Front of India general secretary Anis Ahmed, Students Islamic Organisation of India national president Salman Ahmad and activist Sharjeel Usmani.
The list also includes 5 journalists. The journalists are Maktoob’s Meer Faisal, freelance journalist Sartaj Alam, Newsclick’s senior editor Shyam Meera Singh, freelance journalist Arif Shah and London-based monthly newspaper Byline Times’s global correspondent C.J. Werleman.
On 4 November, four members of a Delhi-based Muslim NGO, Tahreek Farogh e Islam, who carried out a visit to Tripura was booked under draconian UAPA and sent to jail for 14 days. After 20 days of imprisonment, a court in Tripura granted bail to the four Muslim scholars.
On 17 November, the Supreme Court ordered that no coercive steps should be taken against lawyers Mukesh and Ansar Indori and journalist Shyam Meera Singh. The writ petition was filed by the trio seeking to quash the UAPA FIR.
International journalist unions like CPJ, several press clubs in the country, and many politicians including key Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi condemned Tripura police actions and urged the BJP government to immediately drop the terror investigation into journalists, activists, and Muslim leaders for their social media posts and fact-finding visits.