Srinagar: Journalists in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh are up in arms over the arrest of a newspaper editor over third-party comments posted on a Facebook page run by him. The third-party comments were against a BJP leader who last year figured in a controversy over attempts to bribe journalists for favourable coverage for the party.
Tsewang Rigzin, editor of the State Times newspaper, was arrested on September 5 by the Leh police on a complaint lodged by BJP MP Tsering Namgyal. The complaint objected to a comment posted by an unidentified person against BJP leader Vikram Singh Randhawa on a Facebook page called 'Ladakh in Media'.
In a video clarification posted on the Facebook page, Rigzin said he was made aware of the hostile comment on the morning of September 4. "I volunteered to remove the post immediately. But I was advised by the police not to delete the comment since it was being investigated." But the next day he was arrested anyway as he was the admin of the Facebook page.
Journalists in J&K and beyond have condemned Rigzin's arrest. Some political parties too criticized the Ladakh police and the BJP MP for trying to muzzle freedom of expression. In Delhi, the Indian Journalists Union said in a statement that the arrest was a “blatant attack on freedom of expression”.
Rigzin is the general secretary of the Ladakh Journalists Union, an affiliate of the Indian Journalists Union.
In the Facebook video he posted, Rigzin said the arrest seemed to have something to do with an initiative he was part of last year when journalists resisted a move by BJP leaders to pay bribes to reporters for favourable coverage in the elections.
"The BJP has been somehow trying to intimidate me for more than a year now, ever since we exposed the bribery case during the Lok Sabha election," said Rigzin.
In May last year, Vikram Singh Randhawa and the BJP’s J&K unit chief Ravinder Raina were accused by journalists of trying to bribe them with money concealed in envelopes.
The Congress candidate for the Ladakh Lok Sabha seat, Rigzin Spalbar moved the court with a complaint that the BJP violated the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). Subsequently, police registered an FIR and took up an investigation into the matter.
According to a complaint lodged with the police by the Press Club of Leh, the BJP leaders “tried to bribe media persons” on May 2 after a press conference held in Ladakh’s main town “to use their platform to influence the outcome of the election”.
Then a video emerged showing Randhawa handing out envelopes to journalists in the presence of his party’s state chief. The video was actually CCTV footage from Hotel Sangaylay in Leh, the venue of the BJP leaders’ press conference. It showed a woman leaving an envelope on the table. She later said that when she asked Randhawa about the Rs. 500 notes contained in the envelope, he told her that it was a token of 'love'. She and other journalists said that when they objected to it, the BJP leader told them that they do this in Jammu all the time, so what was the problem?
The BJP claimed that the CCTV footage of the incident does not in fact show an attempt to bribe journalists. “The CCTV grab is the invitation envelope being given to reporters for the coverage of the defence minister’s visit to Leh. This is being shown as if money is being given,” Randhawa said later at a press conference in Jammu.
Some of the invitees opened the envelopes and returned them, saying they did not need a 'special invitation'.
An official inquiry conducted by the then deputy commissioner of Leh and election officer Avny Lavasa through additional district magistrate of Leh found the allegations were prima facie correct.