On the night of 23 April, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, a Coimbatore-based journalist, was arrested by the local police. Pandian is the founder and chief executive officer of SimpliCity, a local-news website. The complaint against him, which was filed by M Sundararajan, an assistant commissioner in the Coimbatore municipal corporation, accused Pandian of publishing articles that could derail the state government of Tamil Nadu’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier that day, two other journalists from SimpliCity, M Balaji and Jerald Aruldass, had also been detained and questioned by the Coimbatore police, for over seven hours.
Balaji and Jerald were eventually let go after signing an undertaking that they would return to the police station for any inquiry. But the police charged Pandian under Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, for disobeying regulations during a pandemic. He was also charged under two sections of the Indian Penal Code—Section 188, which deals with “disobedience to order duly promulgated by a civil servant,” and Section 505 (i), which refers to intent to incite public mischief and mutiny, among others. At around 9 pm that day, Pandian was produced before a district magistrate, and is currently remanded at the Avinashi sub-jail. Since the beginning of the outbreak, this is the first time that the Epidemic act has been invoked against a journalist in Tamil Nadu.
The complaint against Pandian referred to two articles published by SimpliCity. The first article, published on 14 April, covered a protest by medical students and trainee doctors at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital over lack of food. The second report, published on 18 April, covered complaints from the residents of Coimbatore over pilferage in ration shops during the lockdown. The article clearly stated that the collector of Coimbatore had also taken note of the allegations and ordered an inquiry. However, the complaint against Pandian claimed that such reports would “turn doctors and public distribution system (PDS) workers against the government and derail efforts to fight the coronavirus.”
When I spoke to Balaji, he said, “For about a week, we were hearing on the journalistic grapevine that SimpliCity would be in trouble. But we never imagined they would be this outright in their attack.” Balaji, who is a photojournalist, told me that around 12 pm on 23 April, he was at the Collectorate building in Gopalapuram when he got a phone call from Shivakumar, a sub-inspector at the Variety Hall Police Station. Shivakumar asked him whether his name is T Mohan Raj, who is another photojournalist with SimpliCity. When Balaji said that this was his phone number and not Mohan’s, Shivakumar accused him of frequently harassing a woman over the phone. Balaji told me that he has been using his current phone number for ten years, and he told the police that there was “no way his number had been used for harassing a woman.” Balaji said that Shivakumar insisted that he come to the Variety Hall station immediately. He said that he “sensed something was wrong,” and informed a friend who is a reporter for the regional news channel Makkal TV, and asked another reporter, who works for Thanthi TV, a Chennai-based news channel, to accompany him to the police station.
Balaji said that he was asked to give the police his phone the moment he reached the Variety Hall station. He told me that he cooperated with the police and gave them his phone to check if the offending calls had been made from his number. Shivakumar then told him that the visit was not about any calls. But the police officials took down his address details and quizzed him about his previous employment. Balaji said that an inspector and assistant commissioner also questioned him.