New delhi, india – On several occasions since Saturday, the terrible idea of having to spend time in jail crossed the mind of a 20-year-old Indian journalist working for a small, emerging media outlet.
The journalist’s social media account, who did not want to be identified, is among 102 Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts being investigated by police in the northeastern state of Tripura under the strict Illegal Activities (Prevention) Law (UAPA). ).
Social media accounts are accused of sharing “fake news” following attacks on several mosques in Tripura last month by suspected members of Hindu right-wing groups.
The Publishers Guild of India is deeply shocked by the action of the Tripura Police to hire 102 people, including journalists, under the Illegal Coercive Activities (Prevention) Act, for reporting and writing about the recent communal violence in the state. pic.twitter.com/bkDssiqOXK
– Editors Guild of India (@IndEditorsGuild) November 7, 2021
The rare incidents in the remote state bordering Bangladesh were an apparent retaliation for religious violence in that country after a photo of the Quran affixed to an idol of a Hindu deity during the Durga Puja festival sparked riots involving at least two Hindus. they died.
Days after the Bangladesh violence, members of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other Hindu groups held protest rallies in Tripura and allegedly attacked the muslims and its religious sites, including mosques.
The VHP is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who also heads the state government in Tripura.
‘I was just doing my job’
The violence and vandalism have left Tripura’s 350,000 Muslims scared as journalists, activists, lawyers and community leaders continue to demand action against the perpetrators.
Police claim misleading images and information were shared on social media to allegedly provoke further violence, an accusation denied by the defendants.
“I was just doing my job of reporting an assault on a Muslim [in Tripura]. I also mentioned how the police immediately came to his rescue, ”the young journalist told Al Jazeera.
“Instead of arresting the rioters, the police go after journalists and activists.”
Another defendant, a senior member of the Islamic Student Organization of India, told Al Jazeera that the cases against him and others are intended to “harass those who speak out against injustice and divert attention from violence. “.
He said that his tweet was not fake and that he had all the evidence and testimonials to back up his claim.
If convicted under the UAPA, the defendant could be jailed for up to seven years.
Mr. Minister of the Interior @AmitShah
– Shyam Meera Singh (@ShyamMeeraSingh) November 7, 2021
Last week, a team of Supreme Court lawyers visited the restless regions of Tripura and published an investigative report on the violence.
A day later, two members of the team, Ansar Indori and Mukesh Kumar, were charged with making statements “promoting enmity between religious groups and causing people from different religious communities to cause a breach of the peace” and charged under of various laws, including UAPA.
Indori said he was “taken aback” by the harsh charges and wondered why he was booked.
“We went there to serve democracy and protect the rights of citizens,” he said. “We did our work within the realm of the law and we engaged with the police and the administration,” he told Al Jazeera.
By presenting the cases, he said, the BJP government was sending a message that it cannot be held responsible for the violence and that there will be consequences for asking questions.
“Naturally, this will send fear among civil society and every activist will think twice before uttering a word.”
Journalists and activists have also accused the Tripura police of underestimating and denying reports of attacks and burning of mosques, and of claiming that the situation was under control.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition party, Congress, said the cases against journalists and activists were the BJP’s “cover-up tactic” by “shooting the messenger.”
“The truth cannot be silenced by UAPA,” Gandhi tweeted on Monday.
Pointing out that #Tripura_Is_Burning it is a call to corrective action. But BJP’s favorite cover-up tactic is shooting the messenger.
The truth cannot be silenced by #UAPA.
– Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) November 8, 2021
But the Tripura police claim to have found “some known and unknown people and organizations who, directly or indirectly, were accomplices of the crime, promoting hatred and enmity, through social networks as part of the conspiracy.”
Arindam Nath, Tripura Police Inspector General, defended the use of UAPA against the 102 defendants.
“We use these laws because the volume of posts on social media was huge. We came across 150 posts, out of which we selected 102 accounts for sharing provocative material, ”he told Al Jazeera by phone.
The social media posting cases are the latest escalation in the government’s crackdown on online dissent in India.
In April, when the country was in the midst of a brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the government asked Twitter to block all content critical of its handling of the crisis.
Earlier this year, India also introduced new information technology laws to regulate social media and digital news. While the government has defended the measures citing national security, human rights groups and experts have raised concerns about freedom of expression.
According to Mishi Choudhary, a New York-based lawyer and activist, while the police may seek the help of social media companies for an investigation, they cannot request that a person’s account be blocked.
She told Al Jazeera that only the central government is authorized to make such requests under Indian law and called the cases filed in Tripura an example of “hyperactive policing.”
“In addition, the misuse of UAPA against individuals in cases that do not necessarily fall into the category of terrorism cases must be stopped.”