Is Vinod Verma's arrest part of the growing trend of cracking down on dissenting journalists?
The arrest of senior journalist Vinod Verma on charges of extortion has triggered a lot of outrage.
A freelance journalist, Verma, who formerly worked with Amar Ujala and BBC Hindi, was arrested by Chhattisgarh Police around 4 am from his home near Delhi for allegedly trying to blackmail a Chhattisgarh minister with a sex CD.
A Ghaziabad court has granted the Chhattisgarh Police a transit remand and the senior journalist will be taken to Raipur where he will be presented before a court.
Verma, a member of the Editors Guild of India, alleges that he is being targeted. While being taken to court after hours of questioning, Verma told reporters, "I have a sex CD of a Chhattisgarh Minister, he is Rajesh Munat and that is why the Chhattisgarh government is not happy with me."
Verma was arrested barely 12 hours after a complaint was lodged at the Pandari police station in Chhattisgarh’s Raipur district by the BJP’s state working committee member Prakash Bajaj. Verma has been booked under sections 384 and 507 of the Indian penal code (IPC) for extortion and intimidation.
The police claim they have seized hundreds of CDs, a laptop and a pen drive from Verma's home. According to the police, he "intended" to distribute objectionable CDs, refusing to disclose the contents to the media.
Pradeep Gupta, Raipur’s Inspector General of Police, told reporters at a press conference on Friday, “An FIR was registered on 2pm yesterday. The FIR did not name Vinod Verma as accused. But the CDs have been found in possession of Verma.”
"The confiscated CDs could malign reputation of a person and hence the arrest was made immediately. Prakash Bajaj gave us a complaint claiming that someone called his landline number and threatened him to release a pornographic CD of his boss. The call was traced to the shop in Delhi which was raided. Verma is said to have ordered the reprints of the CD,” he added.
“We don’t know whether the call was made by Verma or someone else. The matter will be investigated,” Gupta said.
Verma was a part of a fact-finding team of the Editors Guild that travelled to Chhattisgarh last year to examine cases of intimidation of journalists. The fact-finding report that Verma co-wrote last year had concluded that journalists do not feel safe working in Maoist-hit Bastar and "there is a sense of fear".
"The state government wants the media to see its fight with the Maoists as a fight for the nation and expects the media to treat it as a national security issue, and not raise any questions about it," said the report.
Observers are asking several questions in this episode.
For instance, how did the police get to know within hours of the filing of the complaint that Verma was blackmailing the minister, when reports say Bajaj's complaint does not even name him?
If Verma was indeed trying to blackmail him than why would he make 500 copies of the said CD, as the police alleges? The police version of the story makes it look like Verma was more likely to distribute those CDs rather than use them for blackmail. Is this arrest a way to prevent the said video from going public? Why is the police not interested in finding out the contents of the CD rather than going after a senior journalist that too just based on a complaint which has not been even properly investigated? Is it because the minister allegedly in the tape is close to Chief Minister Raman Singh?
Moreover, within such a short time how did the police become so sure that those 500 CDs allegedly recovered from Verma have the same sex video? Interestingly, Raipur grapevine has been rife with rumours of such a CD for over three months now, according to senior local journalists.
A wave of condemnation
Chhattisgarh state Congress president Bhupesh Baghel has condemned Verma’s arrest and accused the ruling party of high-handedness.
"The alleged sex scandal involving a sitting state minister surfaced last week. I also have the CD, but it was not released since we are examining the forensic credibility of the CD. The journalist was arrested for the possession of the same CD. Possessing a CD is not a crime. Verma has not circulated the CD in form. His arrest shows the BJP government is trying to snuff out the issue,” he said.
The Chhattisgarh government, however, claims Verma is working closely with Congress to discredit the BJP government. BJP spokesperson in Chhattisgarh Shrichand Sundarni refuted claims about the alleged sex CD. He said, “These controversies do not affect BJP. The party is ready for any probe into the matter. This is a conspiracy by the Congress party.”
The journalist fraternity sees the incident as a part of a growing trend of crackdown on dissenting journalists by the government.
“I don’t know enough about the facts of this case but what I do know is that independent journalism, adversarial journalism and journalists who are antagonistic to those who are in positions of power and authority in India at present are clearly being targeted and increasingly under attack,” senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told Catch.
He added, “Overall, over the last two-three years, the atmosphere in the country for free and independent journalism has shrunk.”
Former journalist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Ashutosh took to his Twitter and raised questions on Verma’s arrest and also questioned if this is an attack on media.
In a tweet he said, “Vinod Verma Ex BBC n Amar Ujala Digital Editor has been picked up most mysteriously by UP N Chhatttisgarh Police 3.30am. Attack on press?”