Reporters Without Borders condemns the 15 January 2014 arrest of Jitendra Prasad Das, a subeditor with the regional Oriya-language daily Samaj in Cuttack, in the eastern state of Odisha, in connection with the publication of a picture of the Prophet Mohammed on 14 January.
The media freedom organization also calls for investigations into attacks on the newspaper's offices in Cuttack and other cities in Odisha so that those responsible can be brought to justice.
"We urge the authorities to release Jitendra Prasad Das without delay," Reporters Without Borders said on 16 January. "They must not bow to pressure from the street. This journalist committed no crime and arresting him just to defuse the anger of fundamentalists is not justifiable.
"We regret that Samaj did not protect this young journalist by taking responsibility for publishing the picture. This attitude is indicative of the pressure under which it was placed and the self-censorship it feels forced to adopt."
Reporters Without Borders points out that:
- The only curbs on freedom of information tolerated under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are those that protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. The criteria for applying any such restrictions on freedom of expression and information must be extremely precise.
- Restriction of freedom of expression and information under criminal law is only permitted in cases of spoken or written words manifestly inciting hatred, violence or discrimination against a community or individual, or violating a person’s privacy.
- And finally, a strict distinction must be made between offences against beliefs, ideas and dogma, on the one hand, and offences against persons, on the other. Only the second are admissible in law.
The offending picture of the Prophet accompanied a short text in a special issue that Samaj published on 14 January, which Muslims celebrate as his birthday.
As Islam forbids any pictorial representation of Mohamed, members of the Muslim community demonstrated outside the newspaper's offices in Cuttack, Balasore, Rourkela and Kendrapada, demanding a public apology. Although editor Satya Ray published an apology in the newspaper, protesters ransacked its Balasore office and torched its Rourkela office.
As the person supposedly responsible for the inclusion of the picture, Das was arrested at the newspaper's headquarters in Cuttack on 15 January on a charge of "hurting religious sentiments."
When the entire editorial staff told the police that they wanted to be arrested, the police said they were arresting Das just to defuse street tension. He was nonetheless taken before a judge.
Calling for Das' release, National Union of Journalists secretary general Prasanna Mohanty criticized the Samaj management for giving Das' name to the police instead of taking collective responsibility.
In December 2013, Reporters Without Borders published a report on blasphemy entitled Information sacrificed on altar of religion. It examines the dangers to freedom of information from censorship in the name of religion and the belief that religion and "traditional values" should be untouchable.
Working as a journalist is tough in India, which is ranked 140th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and which is one of the world's deadliest countries for media personnel.