Police in Gujarat, India, arrested a journalist and charged him with sedition this week for publishing a story suggesting that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials were planning to oust the state’s Chief Minister Vijay Rupani over a lackluster response to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
The journalist in question – Dhaval Patel, the editor of the website Face of Nation – alleged in an article published last Thursday that senior officials within the BJP were unhappy with Rupani’s management of the state’s coronavirus report and had summoned him to discuss the potential change in leadership.
The article went on to claim that the BJP high command called Mandaviya to discuss the change in leadership in Gujarat. Mandaviya denied the rumors.
Patel was arrested on Friday on charges of violating Section 124(a) of Indian law that deals with sedition and the Disaster Management Act and processed at the Ahmedabad Crime Branch.
The arrest was confirmed by the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Crime Branch, Ahmedabad, B V Gohil, who insisted that Patel had been detained, but not arrested, and that he would be tested for coronavirus at the local hospital as a precautionary measure.
According to Gohil, the article was published without any supporting evidence and helped contribute to an atmosphere of fear and instability as people struggle under the pressure of the lockdown. When asked if he planned to charge other journalists from other news outlets who carried the story, Gohil confirmed that they were “probing others.”
The case was condemned by the rights group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which pointed out that if convicted under India’s Sedition Law, Patel could face life in prison. Should he be charged only with spreading false information amid the pandemic, he will likely face two years in jail for violating the Disaster Management Act.
“Gujarat authorities should release journalist Dhaval Patel immediately and drop the ludicrous charges against him,” said CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, Aliya Iftikhar, in response to the case. “Indian journalists must be allowed to cover local political issues—especially those related to the COVID-19 pandemic—freely and without fear that they will be arrested and charged with sedition.”
It is not the first time that India has seen the rights of its free press infringed. In 2018, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a journalist from a cable news network in Myanmar, was arrested after posting videos on Facebook criticizing local BJP officials and describing the Chief Minister of Manipur as a “puppet” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s federal government.
He was eventually handed a one-year prison sentence, and local police inspector K Bobby accused him of posting content that “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government.”