Shambhavi Thakur/Kartik Kakar

By Akanksha Kumar

This is the ninth part of Newslaundry’s series on the case against journalist Siddique Kappan. You can read previous parts here.

Kappan and three others were arrested at a toll plaza in Mathura on October 5, 2020, when he was on his way to Hathras. According to the first information report filed by the UP police on October 7, Kappan has been charged under sections 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), in addition to provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Information Technology Act.

An examination of the chargesheet by defence lawyer Madhuvan Dutt Chaturvedi raises questions regarding the relevance of the information submitted by the UP police’s special task force as evidence of Kappan’s alleged misdemeanours.

Newslaundry has learnt that STF has included a statement by Binu Vijayan, a journalist with the Malayalam publication Malayala Manorama. Vijayan’s statement alleges Kappan misappropriated funds while Kappan was secretary of the Delhi chapter of Kerala Union of Working Journalists and spread “fake news to incite communal violence and pose danger to national integrity and communal harmony”.

Vijayan’s allegations about the misappropriation of funds has been denied by KUWJ and the matter is currently pending in court. It is unclear how either of his allegations relate to the charges under UAPA and the IT Act.

Who is Binu Vijayan?

Binu Vijayan has been working as a journalist for around 20 years. Between 2003 and 2017, he was the Delhi correspondent for the newspaper Malayala Manorama, which has the largest average issue readership of regional language newspapers according to a recent Indian Readership Survey. At present, Vijayan is based in Patna and continues to write for Malayala Manorama.

When Newslaundry reached out to Vijayan, he refused to respond to any questions related to the chargesheet. Instead, at one point, Vijayan accused this reporter of having “an agenda” and refused to acknowledge that his statement is part of the chargesheet.

Based on an examination of the UP STF’s chargesheet by defence lawyer Madhuvan Dutt Chaturvedi, Newslaundry has learnt that Vijayan’s name first appears as a daily diary entry dated December 31, 2020. The investigating officer mentioned he had received information about “communal reporting” by Kappan and other KUWJ journalists, and therefore reached out to Vijayan.

The daily diary entry notes that Vijayan had sent an email with information regarding Kappan to G Sreedathan, associate editor of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece Organiser, on November 23, 2020.

Newslaundry has previously reported on the allegations made by Kappan, the fact that Kappan had sent Sreedathan a defamation notice months before his arrest, and Sreedathan’s possible ideological bias against Kappan.

According to the daily diary, when Vijayan was asked to come to the UP STF’s Noida office to record his statement, he said he could not do so due to “threats from PFI” [Popular Front of India].

“Siddique Kappan and those associated with PFI are involved in plotting communal struggle across the country. My mail should be considered as the statement,” notes the daily diary, quoting what Vijayan told the investigating officer on the phone.

The first part of Vijayan’s statement alleges Kappan was involved in spreading fake news about the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests at Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2019 and the February riots in Delhi. The second part is about “suspicious cash withdrawal from KUWJ bank account by Siddique Kappan.”

In his email dated November 23, 2020, to Sreedathan, Vijayan alleged KUWJ has a “notorious background of several financial and property irregularities in Delhi and Kerala”. He said the Delhi unit of KUWJ was charged with misappropriation of Rs 25 lakh alloted by the Kerala government, and a case regarding this was pending in the Kerala High Court since 2018. He also claimed other units of KUWJ and press clubs under KUWJ were facing probes and court cases.

The chargesheet does not provide any information on the status of the pending court cases.

Speaking to Newslaundry, KP Reji, state president of KUWJ, said, “Misappropriation of Rs 25 lakhs is a wild allegation as that amount is very much there in the account of KUWJ’s Delhi unit. An advocate on behalf of Binu Vijayan had moved to Kerala High Court in 2018 but the court dismissed it saying that the place of occurrence doesn’t come under their jurisdiction. Later Binu Vijayan filed a review plea and this time the court agreed to hear the matter. The case is still pending.”

Spreading fake news

The first subhead of Vijayan’s emailed statement to STF, which is included in the chargesheet, reads, “Role of Siddique Kappan and other leaders of KUWJ Delhi unit in spreading fake news to incite communal violence and pose danger to national integrity and communal harmony.”

Without including any link or specific story, Vijayan has alleged journalists who are members of KUWJ had spread the false news that students of Jamia Millia Islamia University had been shot dead by Delhi Police during the anti-CAA protests of 2019.

In part three of the series on Kappan’s charge sheet, Newslaundry had quoted Sreedathan who had attributed the source of this story about the death of Jamia students to a WhatsApp message.

In the fifth of 21 booklets in the chargesheet, UP STF has included as an annexure a story titled “Jihadi journos spread fake news about Jamia violence: Muslim mob led by Cong-CPM runs riot in Kerala, offers midnight funeral prayers for ‘FAKE Jamia martyrs’ in state capital”, published in the Organiser on December 16, 2019.

The piece was based on a WhatsApp message “accessed” by Organiser in which Afsal Rahman, who is a contributor to publications of Jamaat-e-Islami and other Malayalam media outlets, had claimed two Jamia students “were shot dead by the police.” While Delhi police had denied firing at Jamia students protesting the CAA, the medical superintendent of Safdarjung Hospital told NDTV that protesters were admitted with bullet injuries. Later, a Delhi police inquiry found two police personnel had fired three bullets that day. No deaths from bullet wounds were reported.

Vijayan’s statement also accuses Kappan of “influencing reporters of Asianet and Media One.” Both these channels were banned in 2020 by the ministry of information and broadcasting for a period of 48 hours following their coverage of the Delhi riots that year.

“Even though the Information & Broadcasting Ministry has prohibited the transmission of these channels for 48 hours, no legal action has been taken against the journalists of these channels for trying to incite violence and pose danger to maintenance of law and order situation,” says Vijayan in his statement.

The chargesheet includes the ban order issued to Asianet news channel, which was emailed as an attachment, but details related to the ban order of Media One have not been mentioned in the chargesheet, which raises questions of whether the UP STF relied solely on information supplied by Vijayan and what additional fact-finding the agency did to corroborate Vijayan’s allegations.

Vijayan also named Miji Jose (president of KUWJ Delhi unit, currently working with Media One channel) and Prasanth Reghuvamsom, editor at Asianet News, as those “who are actively involved in social media campaign to project Siddique Kappan as an innocent victim of UP police.” In his statement, Vijayan refers to these journalists as “ultra leftist elements” that have found their way into KUWJ. Two former secretaries of KUWJ – PK Manikantan and M Prasanth – have also been named as those whose roles should be probed according to Vijayan.

In their response to Newslaundry, the Delhi unit of KUWJ has termed Vijayan’s allegations “baseless”.

“We have no information that Binu’s complaints are in the chargesheet. If so, it’s very shocking. We are yet to get a copy of the chargesheet. We will consult our advocates and the Union’s leaders before taking a further step on such malicious propaganda against objective practices of reporting. We can say confidently that as reporters, all of us have done our job meticulously without any bias,” KUWJ said in its statement.

Speaking to Newslaundry, consulting editor of Asianet News, MG Radhakrishnan said, “Asianet News’s coverage had nothing to do with KUWJ or Kappan. Being the oldest and most popular Malayalam news channel and having the most experienced reporters at Delhi, we are always at our own discretion.”

Regarding the labelling of the channel’s Delhi riots coverage as “fake news” in the statement, Radhakrishnan said, “It’s totally absurd.”

Allegations of embezzlement of funds by KUWJ

The second sub-head of Binu Vijayan’s statement talks about “suspicious cash withdrawal from KUWJ bank account by Siddique Kappan.”

Citing a 2018 order by the Kerala High Court, the statement claims that withdrawal of Rs 41,000 by Kappan in December 2019 amounts to “misappropriation”. “This amount is suspected to be used for the unlawful activities of Popular Front [of India] of which Siddique Kappan is suspected to be an active worker,” said Vijayan in his statement. He has further alleged Kappan was restricted from withdrawing money from the account.

Kappan’s lawyer Wills Mathews has maintained that Kappan’s interactions with PFI members were entirely related to his journalistic work.

When asked about the allegations of misappropriating funds amounting to Rs 41,000, KUWJ state president KP Reji told Newslaundry, “There’s no freeze or any restrictions on KUWJ Delhi unit’s bank accounts. Neither the union or the Federal Bank had imposed any restriction on our office-bearers to withdraw money for expenses incurred from our account. In this case, the money was withdrawn for the necessities involved in a members’ family get-together organised as part of Xmas and New Year on December 15, 2019, at Kerala School, Canning Road, Delhi.”

A former KUWJ functionary who didn’t want to be named told Newslaundry that since 2017, Vijayan has engaged in a “smear campaign” against certain KUWJ members because they did not get selected for an internal panel. A year later, Vijayan alleged misappropriation of funds by KUWJ and a three-member panel of journalists dismissed the claims of financial irregularities.

In 2019, Kappan was elected to the post of secretary of the Delhi chapter of KUWJ.

That same year, Vijayan withdrew his membership of KUWJ. He was also transferred to Patna along with a few other journalists from Malayala Manorama’s Delhi bureau.

Newslaundry contacted Jayant Mammen Mathew, executive editor and director of Malayala Manorama, to ask about Vijayan and his transfer, but there was no response.

Booklet 11 of the chargesheet has a copy of an email exchange between Kappan, in his capacity as KUWJ secretary, and the grievance solution cell of the Federal Bank where KUWJ had its official account.

On May 11, 2020, Kappan had written to bank officials, stating KUWJ’s bank statement “was being circulated on social media by a group of people who are against and in no way related to the KUWJ.” Kappan told the bank that the statement had been leaked to unauthorized persons by the bank, without informing any office bearers of KUWJ. On June 22, 2020, Kappan sent another email, raising concerns regarding the circulation of WhatsApp messages that had KUWJ’s bank statement. He said these messages were “seriously affecting the credibility of KUWJ Delhi unit.”

In an internal communication dated April 20, 2020, between the Federal Bank officials posted at New Delhi’s Connaught Place branch, assistant vice president and branch head Anil VP informed his colleagues, “As per log the clerk of branch Kazhakuttam who is presently deputed Branch Trivandrum/Cotton Hill. He downloaded two statements. The second one was forwarded to Mr Binu…..Mr Ramesh Babu informed me that the statement was generated and forwarded as requested by Mr Binu who is his college senior.”

Agendas and investigations

It remains unclear how either the coverage of the Delhi riots by TV media or KUWJ’s finances connect to Kappan, who has been charged with sedition, promoting enmity and provisions under UAPA and the IT Act.

Journalist colleagues of Vijayan’s say that due to covering the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as his beat, Vijayan has been in proximity with several BJP leaders.

“Since Malayala Manorama is the newspaper with highest circulation in Kerala, these leaders would also willingly oblige Vijayan,” said a journalist on condition of anonymity. Two reporters, also requesting anonymity, said they had noticed “a marked change in his political ideology after 2014”.

Without looking into whether Vijayan’s ideological bias motivated his allegations, UP STF appears to have taken Vijayan’s statements at face value – simply on the basis of Vijayan having emailed his suspicions about Kappan to Sreedathan. The UP STF does not elaborate on why Vijayan’s is considered a reliable testimony and neither is there any indication of the agency having carried out any follow-ups to verify his claims.

Speaking to Newslaundry, former KUWJ secretary M Prashanth, who has been named in the statement, said, “If the case against Kappan is built on such flimsy complaints by a person with vested agenda, it should be a warning for all of us who are doing our job as a journalist. It’s not an issue just for a journalist. All the people and organisations who want to see democracy sustain in this country should be worried about such attempts.”

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