NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s top court on Monday ordered the release of a journalist arrested for a social media post about a Hindu nationalist state chief minister, in a case that highlighted growing concerns over free speech and media freedom.
Prashant Kanojia, 26, was detained by plainclothes police last week after a tweet about a woman claiming to be in love with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Kanojia’s wife said in a petition filed before the Supreme Court.
A firebrand Hindu monk, Adityanath is a leader in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power at the federal level and in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state.
“We order immediate release of the petitioner from jail,” Justice Indira Banerjee said in her order, despite a lawyer for the state government arguing that Kanojia’s post was highly inflammatory.
Banerjee also reprimanded the state government for being heavy-handed in its response to Kanojia’s post. “We can understand that the tweets should not be made. But arresting?” she said.
The detention drew criticism from media groups and opposition parties, amid fears that the BJP could look to clamp down on the press after Modi last month secured a landslide mandate in a general election.
“Whatever the accuracy of the woman’s claims, to register a case of criminal defamation against the journalists for sharing it on the social media and airing it on a television channel is a brazen misuse of law,” the Editors Guild of India said in a statement.
Two other journalists were also arrested last week for holding a discussion on the woman’s claim about Adityanath, said police in Noida, a sprawling Uttar Pradesh city on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Police in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, a political stronghold of Adityanath, arrested one person on Sunday for sharing another social media post on the chief minister, two police said.
Rahul Gandhi, chief of India’s main opposition Congress party, said Adityanath was acting “foolishly” in going after journalists.
“If every journalist who files a false report or peddles fake, vicious RSS/BJP sponsored propaganda about me is put in jail, most newspapers/ news channels would face a severe staff shortage,” he said in a tweet, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s fountainhead.
India is ranked 140 out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which lists police violence against journalists as a striking characteristic of the country’s press environment.
Additional reporting and writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie