The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today condemned the detention of Indian journalists Dhiren Sadokpam and Paojel Chaoba and demanded that charges against them be dropped.

Sadokpam, editor-in-chief of the online news portal The Frontier Manipur and Chaoba, the executive editor of the portal, were detained on January 17 by police in Manipur state in northeastern India. According to news reports, the journalists, who are based in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, were charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) after publishing an critical article about Manipur’s many armed groups titled ‘Revolutionary journey in a mess’ on January 8. Police claimed that the article openly endorsed revolutionary ideologies and activities. Police have also filed a case against M. Joy Luwang, the author of the article, but he has reportedly not yet been detained. “His article clearly expressed sympathy and support to the ideologies and activities of the armed revolutionary groups and outrightly called the rule of law of the Union and State government as colonial law”, police said .

The two journalists were released today after giving a written statement that the publication of the article was an oversight and its credibility had not been verified. The police said that while the two had been released the case remained open and that it was looking for the author of the report.  “Manipur state government will not accept any critical reviews, which is a big issue”, Chaoba told IPI today after his release. He said that local authorities behave arbitrarily and arrest journalists without justification. “There is no freedom of expression”, Chaoba said.

“While we welcome the release of Dhiren Sadokpam and Paojel Chaoba, we urge authorities to drop charges against them”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “We remain concerned by the growing use of criminal law in India to target journalists for their reporting and opinion.”

Media reports said that a police team had arrived at Chaoba’s house in the morning on January 17 asking him to accompany them and that he had refused. Later he was detained when he reached the police station on his own. Sadokpam was detained later after being summoned for interrogation.

In the last few years, the Manipur police have charged several journalists, in many cases for their social media posts. Journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, an associate editor at Frontier Manipur, was charged under the National Security Act and with sedition in 2018, and spent over four months in jail after he had published a social media post which was critical of Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2020, Wangkhem again spent more than two months in prison after he was charged with sedition.

Today, just after his colleagues had been released, Wangkhem told IPI that he believes that authorities have targeted Frontier Manipur. “We are the only forum left in the state which is not pro-government. We need to do something. People don’t know about politics”, Wangkhem said.

“The situation is quite shocking and it’s not getting any better. And it’s not like this only in Manipur but probably in whole country”, he added, described the situation for journalists.

Press freedom in India has faced a rapid downward spiral during the COVID-19 pandemic as journalists have been targeted by the government for their critical report about the response to the pandemic. In addition to legal cases, journalists have been victims of police violence during the lockdown. According to IPI’s tracker in 2020 there was reported 84 press freedom violations in India linked to COVID-19.