India: Dainik Bhaskar journalists pursued and arrested by police for report error

A ‘factual error’ on the location of a suspected terrorist’s arrest in a Dainik Bashkar news report led to the arrest of its editor, Sandeep Sharma, and reporter Sunil Brar by Haryana state police. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Indian Journalists Union (IJU) condemn the misuse of the state power to intimidate media and stifle reporting on stories of national interest.

A Dainik Bhaskar office in Bhopal. Credit: Gagan Nayar/AFP

On September 16, Dainik Bhaskar reported on the arrest of suspected terrorists namely Rubal Singh, Vicky Bhutti, Malkeet Singh and Gurpreet Singh (alias Gopi), who were allegedly behind a bomb plot in Punjab a month earlier. On August 8, the group backed by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is alleged to have planted and exploded a tiffin Improvised Explosive Device (IED) at Jalandhar-Amritsar highway section of Hambowal village in Kapurthala district. But the news story incorrectly identified the place the suspects were arrested as ‘Ambala Cantonment area near the Indian oil Corporation depot in Ambala district’ instead of ‘Mardon Sahib Village’. The distance between the two locations is 20 kilometers.

Despite rectifying the mistake on September 17, the paper’s editor, Sandeep Sharma, and reporter Sunil Brar were subsequently arrested under under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and charged under sections 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), 177 (furnishing false information), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and 505 (2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) of the Indian Penal Code for the factual error. A senior police officer claimed that Sharma and Brar misinformed the public and attempted to create panic with the report.

Brar was later granted bail in the Ambala court of Judicial Magistrate Mukesh Kumar on September 18. “[A]fter perusal of the remand paper and the copy of the newspaper produced by the Investigating Officer, this court is of the view that there was nothing (of the sort) which can create enmity between classes,” the court noted.

Political leaders from Indian National  Lok Dal (INLD), Haryana Democratic Front and BSP roundly criticized the arrest, terming it ‘illegal’. Dainik Bhaskar has reported extensively on Covid-19 mismanagement in India. Various sites of the daily were raided in July on allegations of multiple charges of tax evasion. The Dainik Bhaskar group brings out newspaper editions in Hindi and Gujarati from various states.

IJU president, Geetartha Pathak, said: “The IJU condemns the case against both the journalists.  Minor factual error may happen in news media, and it is the duty of the media to recognize and correct it. Filing a case against such an error even after the correction of the error is just an intimidation tactic.”

The IFJ said: “The punitive actions by the Haryana government against Sharma and Brar suggest that India’s administration is actively looking for avenues to silence the independent and critical voice of the media.”

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The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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