On Sunday, June 13, Uttar Pradesh based journalist Sulabh Srivastava’s body was found on the side of a road in Pratapgarh district at around 9:45 P.M. The local police quickly announced to the media that Srivastava had died in a road accident, after his motorbike skidded on a wet road due to rain at night and he hit a hand pump. However, it was soon revealed that 42-year-old Srivastava, a reporter with ABP News and ABP Ganga, had recently written to UP police that he feared for his life and that of his family and felt threatened after his report on the local liquor mafia. His wife confirmed this with local reporters soon enough and said he had indeed been seeking protection.

By Monday, June 14, police registered a case of murder and criminal intimidation against unknown persons on the basis of a written complaint from Sulabh’s wife Renuka Srivastava, reported The Telegraph quoting Surendra Dwivedi, Additional Superintendent of Police of Pratapgarh district. According to the news report, Sulabh had written to the Additional Director General of police of the Allahabad zone, Prem Prakash, on Saturday, mentioning that he feared for his life and that of his family after he had reported on the liquor mafia.

The letter in Hindi stated, “Applicant Sulabh Srivastava, resident of Sahodarpur, Kotwali, Pratapgarh, is a district correspondent of the esteemed ABP News and ABP Ganga…. The police had recently conducted raids on the liquor mafia at Kunda, Hathigawa and Antu (in Pratapgarh)…. The applicant had covered the incident…. I had also filed an article on the digital platform (of ABP Ganga) on June 9.” His wife later told the media she had seen the letter on her husband’s phone.

According to news reports, his colleagues told the media they last saw Sulabh Srivastava when he was on his way back from reporting in the locality of Kotwali Lalganj at around 10:30 P.M, that was “nearly an hour after the police claim to have found the body”. It has been reported that his face and body bore many injury marks and his shirt was torn off. This is usually evidence of an attack and not a road accident on a rain slicked surface, inferred some media reports. In his June 12 letter to the Additional Director General of police, Srivastava had clearly stated he had threatened since June 9, after his report on alcohol bootleggers allegedly having accomplices within the police force was published on the website of ABP News. He was found dead the next day.

The case is likely to escalate and has also given the Opposition to raise this as a major issue as Uttar Pradesh’s politicians are already seen to be preparing. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi has written to UP Chief Minister Adityanath and called for a “CBI inquiry” and asked for “financial assistance to the family”.

The Press Club of India (PCI) also condemned the journalists’ murder and asked the UP Chief Minister to take immediate action.

There is international attention on the case, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also asked the Centre to appoint an independent team to investigate the death. “The reporter, who had been threatened and whose body was covered with injuries when found, clearly seems to have been the victim of a murder,” stated the RSF, expressing its shock that the Pratapgarh police was quick to “classify Sulabh Srivastava’s death as road accident despite all the evidence that should already allow them to conclude that it was a murder.” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk said, “In view of the unacceptable errors in the Uttar Pradesh administration’s preliminary investigation, we call on Indian home minister Amit Shah to immediately appoint an independent team of investigators. Impunity for crimes of violence against journalists in Uttar Pradesh must end.”

In Uttar Pradesh, to say that journalists can report on mafias and gangs, without fear will be a gross misreading of the ground reality. The RSF statement recalled the death of reporter Shubham Mani Tripathi who was shot six times on a street in Lucknow, a year ago, on June 19 2020. Tripathi too had said in a Facebook post that he feared he could be killed because of his investigations into the local “sand mafia.” The investigation into his murder has stalled, alleged RSF. India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

The Editors Guild of India has also alleged that the UP police is treating Sulabh Srivastava’s “mysterious death” in a “cavalier manner” and that Srivastava had alerted the cops in his letter that there was a risk to his life. “He believed that some people were following him. The authorities paid no heed to his fears” state EGI. The senior journalists body added that now media is under “pressures from central and state governments” to follow the “official narrative” and that “local authorities liberally and unjustifiably use laws such as sedition and UAPA to file charges and arrest journalists. This is against the spirit of the judgment given by the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Singh case and re-iterated in the recent sedition case against Vinod Dua.”

“All of this is contrary to the commitments that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made at the G-7 summit to democracy, openness and against authoritarianism,” stated EGI.

Journalists are easy targets

However, even as the Covid-19 pandemic claimed the lives of many journalists, who were not considered frontline workers for early vaccination, there are many who have also been victims of “official” apathy and targeting. Here are a few cases that have come to light in the past few months:

June 9: Journalists Masihuzzama Ansari, told SabrangIndia that he decided to share his experience with the world before it was too late. The Delhi-based journalist who hails from Uttar Pradesh realised he was at ‘risk’ of becoming a headline himself, while reporting on the disputed “evictions” of Muslim families near Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur. He called the District Magistrate for the official version of the district administration, and instead was asked his religion, told to rise above it and allegedly threatened with arrest. He was told: You are a Ansari, rise above your religion!

June 8: Political cartoonist Manjul’s Twitter account is censored, he is asked for an explanation by the social media site. Soon after that his employers Network 18 group terminated his contract and suspended him with “immediate effect”. Manjul was told by Twitter that his cartoons posted on social media “violates the law(s) of India”. Twitter stated that it was asked by “Indian law enforcement” to take action against his account. Soon the editorial cartoonist whose work has often been critical of the government was suspended with “immediate effect” from Mukesh Ambani owned Network18 on June 8, The Wire reported.

May 25: Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan completed 1,000 days in prison!. He was arrested in August 2018, and accused of working for the banned militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen. He was charged with murder and conspiracy in a case related to an exchange of gunfire between militants and security forces in Srinagar and was also booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). According to Reuters, Sultan’s family and the editor of Kashmir Narrator, the magazine he worked for, deny the accusations, saying he was arrested for his journalistic work, particularly for a story titled The Rise of Burhan, which he wrote for his magazine in July 2018.

May 18: Manipur based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was charged under the stringent National Security Act (NSA) for his social media posts. Wangkhem, had allegedly commented on “cow dung” as “therapy” after the death” of state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Saikhom Tikendra Singh due to Covid-19 related complications. The complaint was filed by the state BJP vice-president, Usham Deban, and general secretary P Premananda Meetei. Wangkhem’s social media post reportedly said, “Cow dung cow urine didn’t work. Groundless argument. Tomorrow I will eat fish.”

May 13: Raqib Hameed Naik, a journalist working freelance with Al Jazeera received death threats for his explosive investigative report on the Covid-19 relief funds being received by “Hindu organisations based out of the United States”. This report was published on on April 2, 2021 from the US. This seems to have put Raqib Ahmed in the crosshairs of the right-wing ecosystem which is extremely ‘sensitive’ to any criticism or questioning of their funds, organisations, and actions. Though he lives in the US at the moment, the alleged threats come after his report revealed the funds collected by organisations affiliated to the India based Right Wing establishment.

May 7: Delhi based journalist Siddique Kappan who was under treatment for Covid-19 at AIIMS in Delhi was “secretly” discharged and taken to Mathura jail, said his wife Raihanath. She had also written to CJI Ramana to intervene, and on April 27, the top court had called for his medical records. Kappan has been in jail since October 2020, after his arrest in UP when he was on his way to report on the Hathras rape case.

April 5: The Press Council of India demanded an explanation from Tripura Govt on the allegation made by over 20 scribes that they had been attacked in the state after Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s controversial remarks on the media during a programme in September 2020. The allegations of attacks on journalists were put forth by the Assembly of Journalists (AOJ), which is a forum for protection of media rights. It was widely reported when on September 11, 2020, Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s while speaking at the inaugural ceremony of Tripura’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Sabroom had said that a section of “over-excited newspapers” were “trying to confuse people” over Covid-19 and added that “neither history nor I will forgive them”.

March 3: Human Rights Defenders’ Alert India (HRDA) wrote to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), expressing concern regarding the harassment, fabricated charges and wrongful arrest of journalist Saleem Khan by police officials in Madhya Pradesh. They alleged that on October 25, 2020, Saleem Khan visited the mandi in Panna district, where he witnessed an ongoing dispute between the vegetable vendors and other shopkeepers over slots in the mandi. After Khan published an article about the lack of amenities to shopkeepers at the mandi on his news portal he sent links of the story on WhatsApp. Soon he alleged that he received threatening messages and complained about it to the then Superintendent of Police (SP) Mayank Awasthi. He was later called to the Police Station on December 27 last year and subsequently arrested, initially booked for causing voluntary hurt, uttering obscene words in public and criminal intimidation, police subsequently added section 386 (extortion) of the Indian Penal Code to his FIR, which is a non-bailable offence.

February 9: Enforcement Directorate raids news portal, NewsClick. During the 113-hour “search” Prabir Purkayastha, the editor-in-chief of the news portal, and well known author, Githa Hariharan, were confined to their home in Delhi, and reportedly were “not allowed access to phones and even to their lawyers”. The raids occurred at the office of NewsClick and the house of its editor-in-chief, the residence of its chief editor, and in about ten places in Ghaziabad and Delhi.

February 1: Senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of news website The Wire,shared that a complaint against him had been lodged at Rampur’s Civil Lines police station for his social media post. The FIR was based on a complaint filed by one Sanju Turaiha, a resident of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. Varadarajan was charged under Sections 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity between classes) of the IPC. It was alleged that Varadarajan’s social media post allegedly “misled people” on the death of Navreet Singh Dibdibiya, a protester in New Delhi on Republic Day when violence broke out during the protest against farm bills.

January 31: Independent reporter Mandeep Punia (25), who hails from Jhajjar, Haryana was arrested and sent to judicial custody for 14 days. Mandeep was arrested at Singhu border from where he was reporting, and was charged under Sections 186 (voluntarily obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. He was eventually released on bail.

Law to the rescue

June 3: The Supreme Court quashed the Sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua. The case was registered with the Himachal Pradesh Police in connection with a video uploaded on YouTube in 2020 that criticised the Central government’s poor implementation of the Covid-19 lockdown. The Division Bench of Justices UU Lalit and Vineet Saran ruled, “We have quashed the proceedings and FIR. Every journalist will be entitled to the protection under Kedar Nath Singh (sedition) judgment.”

April 6: Delhi Police closed the case filed against The Tribune and its journalist, Rachna Khaira, for reporting that anonymous sellers were allegedly selling Aadhaar numbers on WhatsApp. The Delhi Crime Branch filed a closure report before a Delhi court stating that there is not enough evidence to probe the matter further. During the probe, the police found that the login ID of the Surat Collector’s office in Gujarat was used to access the data and to accommodate requests for information change, but there was no illegal access.

February 9: A Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice Bobde has stayed the arrest of Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, and journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Vinod K Jose, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Anant Nath and Paresh Nath over the multiple FIRs filed against them over their responses/tweets on social media about a young farmer’s death on Republic Day. Multiple FIRs were lodged against the petitioners in Noida (Uttar Pradesh), Madhya Pradesh and Delhi for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ on the death of Navneet Singh, a protester in central Delhi when thousands of farmers entered areas in the national capital, that were not in the agreed route of the tractor rally. On February 3, 2021, all the accused persons approached the Supreme Court in this matter.

March 25: The Supreme Court quashed an FIR against journalist Patricia Mukhim which was filed over a social media post by Lawsohtun Dorbar Shnong, a traditional institution in Meghalaya that had alleged that her Facebook post incited communal tension. In 2020, six non-tribal boys of Shillong had gone to a place called Lawsohtun to play basketball, and around 20 to 25 unidentified boys assaulted them with iron rods and sticks as per media reports. Thereafter, Mukhim took to Facebook condemning the violence, calling out the Lawsohtun village council for failing to identify the “murderous elements”. The village council then filed a complaint against the veteran journalist for her post, alleging that her statement incited communal tension, and might instigate communal conflict. She defended her post, stating that she only raised the issue of “continued” attacks on non-tribal persons in her post.

Deja vu?

In 2020 SabrangIndia had reported, on a “Hounded Media Roll of Honour” that journalists accused of Sedition, booked under UAPA, accused of fraud, named in numerous FIRs, had legal summons thrown at them by the authorities in the states mentioned, and elsewhere. The list was just the tip of the iceberg of the state of press freedom in India. There are many more, especially freelancers reporting from smaller towns and villages whose harassment may have not even been recognised by their own fraternity working in big cities. The list continues to grow in 2021.

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