The Quint published a video story on 24 February exposing the abuse of jawans, despite the Army having recently issued a circular to put an end to the misuse of the “sahayak” system.
Following the death of one of the jawans featured in the video, The Quint took down the story on 3 March to protect the other jawans in the video.
The Nashik Police subsequently filed a case of abetment to suicide (punishable by imprisonment up to ten years) and criminal trespass (under Section 3 (spying) and 7 of the Official Secrets Act) against reporter Poonam Agarwal on the basis of a complaint by the Army.
This is not the first time charges under the Official Secrets Act – a stringent, pre-Independence Act from 1923 – have been unfairly slapped against journalists.
Four years ago, the Bombay High Court had dismissed a case against Mumbai-based crime reporter Tarakant Dwivedi alias Akela, who had been arrested and booked under OSA.
Akela was arrested in 2011 for a story he broke while he was working as the principal correspondent for Mumbai Mirror. The report detailed on how weapons bought after the 26/11 terror attack were not stored properly during the monsoons, possibly rendering them ineffective in the event of another terror strike. They were reportedly lying in a Railway Protection Force armoury, with a leaky roof, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which had been targeted on 26/11.
Much to the journalistic community's outrage, the Railway police accused Akela of trespassing on railway property and "spying".
The Editors Guild of India condemned his arrest and called it a "direct assault" on the freedom of the press. Journalists in Mumbai marched to the state government headquarters, demanding his release.
The Advocate-General at the time, Darius Khambata, later said the police action was ‘incorrect’ and that his story was in fact in public interest.
The dropping of charges against Akela was a victory for journalists and freedom of press around the country.
Akela, who continues to report on crime had said:
The case was seen as an attempt by the establishment to gag reporters. Now it has turned into an example of the best kind of investigative journalism.
On Wednesday, a women’s media body, Network of Women in the Media, India, demanded that the charges under OSA and of abetment to suicide against Poonam be dropped.
In a letter to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, NWMI wrote:
The army cannot make the claim that Poonam Agarwal was giving out information on the army unless it wishes to make the case that the exploitative ‘sahayak’ or ‘buddy’ system is meant to be an official secret.