The Uttar Pradesh Police on April 1 lodged two FIRs against Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of news portal The Wire, for allegedly attributing an incorrect statement to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. One of the FIRs was filed by the SHO of Kotwali Nagar police station. The FIRs come after Mrityunjay Kumar, the media advisor to Adityanath had warned Varadarajan of initiating an investigation and filing a defamation case against him if he failed to delete the incorrect attribution. “The Wire will have to ask for donations to fight the case apart from needing donations to run the website,” Kumar had said.

What the FIRs were about: Both FIRs were lodged in the Ayodhya district. One of the FIRs was filed by one Harbhajan Gaud, and invoked section 66D of the IT Act which involves punishment for cheating by personation by using computer resource, apart from invoking Sections 188 (disobedience to order issued by a public servant) and 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes) of the Indian Penal Code. The other FIR, filed by the SHO of Kotwali Nagar, Nitish Kumar Shrivastav invoked Sections 188 and 505(2) of the IPC.

“Despite our warnings, neither did [Varadarajan] delete his lie nor did he apologise for it. We said an investigation would be initiated and an FIR has been filed. If you are thinking of spreading lies about the Yogi government, please remove such thoughts from your mind,” Kumar said while tweeting a copy of the FIR.

In the FIR, Gaud alleges that he “read a post on a social site which was tweeted by a person called Siddharth. The post was defaming honourable CM Yogi Adityanath. [Gaud] was aggrieved after reading such nonsensical things about the CM”. It is worth noting that the FIR did not specifically mention which tweet the complainant was referring to.

The FIR filed by Shrivastav cites a paragraph from an initial version of an article The Wire did on March 31, albeit without mentioning the date or headline of the article it is drawn from: “On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Adityanath insisted a large Ram Navami fair planned for Ayodhya from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual and that ‘Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus’”. Srivastav said that “such unsavoury remarks against the Uttar Pradesh administration have resulted in ill-will between the classes”.

Varadarajan had issued a correction: Varadarajan had tweeted the above paragraph the same day, but had issued a clarification the next day stating that it was not Adityanath who said that Lord Ram would protect devotees from coronavirus, but Acharya Paramhans, a Hindutva stalwart and head of the official Ayodhya temple trust. However, he clarified that Adityanath did take part in a public event on March 25, defying the 21-day nationwide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Please note that while the article was updated with the correction, Varadarajan’s tweet about the correction came after Kumar’s warning.

The Wire calls this an attack on press freedom: The founding editors of The Wire said that they had not said anything that wasn’t a matter of record. “A bare perusal of the FIR shows that the offences invoked are not even remotely made out and that it is aimed at stifling legitimate expression and factual information. The UP police seems to think its job is to go after those who criticise the CM. The registration of an FIR is a blatant attack on the freedom of the press”, they added.

This development comes after the central government had urged the Supreme Court to direct the media to refer to and publish the official version about the developments around COVID-19. The apex court had then directed the media to publish only the official government version of developments around COVID-19.