N. Venugopal (left) accused of participating in a “Maoist conspiracy” to overthrow Telangana state government, while his colleague Doddipalya Narasimha Murthy (right) is currently in detention in reference to a complaint filed against him 25 years ago, in 1994. Delhi-based journalist Gautam Navlakha (center) was arrested in August 2019 for allegedly being an “Urban Naxal” (Image: DB / RSF – Photos: Telangana Sahitya akademi – The Quint – The News Minute).
Organisation RSF_en Reporters Without Borders (RSF) firmly condemns a recent increase in attempts in several Indian states to prosecute journalists for allegedly participating in “revolutionary” activities, and calls on the courts to dismiss these absurd charges.
The latest targets include Nellutla Venugopal Rao, a journalist based in the south-central state of Telangana who uses the pen-name of N. Venugopal. An indictment submitted to a judge by police in the state capital, Hyderabad, on 13 November includes him in a list of ten people accused of participating in a “Maoist conspiracy” to overthrow the state government.
The editor of Veekshanam, a monthly specializing in social and economic issues, Venugopal is identified by the police as a member of Virasam, the Association of Revolutionary Writers, a completely legal organization to which Venugopal did once belong but left more than ten years ago.
The police indictment also describes Venugopal as currently “absconding” when in fact he is often interviewed on TV and participates in public conferences. Charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, he is facing, in theory, a possible life sentences. A state court is due to issue a decision on the indictment today.
“We call on the Telangana high court’s judges to dismiss this utterly insubstantial indictment,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Accusing journalists of ‘Maoism’ is an old trick used by certain Indian politicians such as Chief Minister Chandrashekhar Rao who cannot stand journalistic freedom. Such behaviour is unworthy of article 19 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees the right of all citizens to freedom of expression.”
Venugopal, who writes for various English and Telugu-language publications, has no illusions about the reason for this charge. “I was expecting that,” he told RSF.” When I began criticizing the government’s policies, calling them anti-people, the government began its attempts to scuttle my voice.”
The indictment was preceded by threats to withdraw state advertising and other forms of threats and pressure on the newspapers for which he writes. “I was anticipating that they would implicate me in some fabricated case in order to threaten or stop my criticism,” he added.
In the neighbouring southwestern coastal state of Karnataka, journalist and newspaper publisher Doddipalya Narasimha Murthy has been detained for the past month for allegedly being a member of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) and a “Naxalite” – meaning a supporter of Maoist guerrilla movements that emerged in rural areas of eastern India in the 1960s.
The state police’s grounds for arresting Murthy in the city of Raichur on 25 October is a complaint filed against him in Raichur 25 years ago, in 1994. The police claim that he has been “absconding” ever since.
“This is ridiculous,” said Dr. H.V. Vasu, the editor of Nyaya Patha, the newspaper that Murthy publishes. He told RSF that Murthy is a public figure and secretary-general of the Gauri Media Trust, a media group set up as tribute to Gauri Lankesh, a well-known journalist who was gunned down outside her home in Bangalore, Karnataka’s capital, in September 2017.
Discredit and harass
Vasu attributes the offensive against Murthy to the installation of a new state government in Karnataka in August that is affiliated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, the Hindu nationalist party of which Lankesh was a leading critic.
“When he was arrested in Raichur, he was there as the Gauri Media Trust’s representative,” he said. “They chose that moment to target him in order to make a point.”
The authorities often use accusations of “Maoism” and “Naxalism” to discredit and harass journalists. In August 2018, one of the targets of a wave of arrests of persons accused of promoting a so-called “urban Naxals” conspiracy was the New Delhi-based reporter Gautam Navlakha. Police used the same accusation to raid the homes of K.V. Kurmanath and Kranti Tekula, two journalists based in Hyderabad.
Somary Nag, a journalist working for the newspaper Patrika in the east-central state of Chhattisgarh, was arrested in 2015 for allegedly collaborating with Maoist activists. After a year in prison, he was finally acquitted in July 2016. Another journalist, Santosh Yadav, was also arrested in Chhattisgarh in 2015 on a charge of “criminal conspiracy” with Maoist guerrillas and was not released until March 2017.
Caught in the crossfire
Journalists are caught in the crossfire in areas with Naxalite rebellions. When they are not accused of complicity with the Maoists, they are liable to be targeted by them. TV cameraman Achyutananda Sahu was following a police patrol through a rural part of Chhattisgarh in October 2016 when Maoist guerrillas opened fire on the patrol, killing Sahu as well as two policemen.
India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.