FIR against Kerala journalist after questions on CM flood relief fund utilization

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Screengrab from Shajan Skariah’s video

A case has been filed by the Kerala Police against new media entrepreneur and journalist Shajan Skariah of MarunadanMalayali.com for ‘misleading essential services forces’ and ‘causing nuisance’ after he questioned the utilization of the funds collected in the aftermath of last year’s funds.

Skariah had put up a video on Facebook and Youtube in which he had taken the state government to task for what he termed the slow pace at which funds were being released to the victims of the 2018 flood.

The video was uploaded on July 5, a month before heavy rains lashed Kerala for the second time and led to a second round of flooding.

The case was filed on August 12 — 37 days after the video was put up, and in the middle of this year’s flood evacuation efforts.

Skariah’s allegations contained in the July video primarily revolved around two topics — reports about using the fund for what he called inappropriate purposes and reports of delays faced by victims of the 2018 disaster in getting compensation. The Kerala government was still in the process of assessing damage when Skariah had put up the video.

In his video, Skariah quoted two sets of media reports, the first of which was about allegations by opposition Congress Party that alleged that CPIM had transferred money collected in the name of flood relief to own their party fund. The second report was by New Indian Express in which it was alleged that the government had, in 2017 (before the floods), used proceeds from the CM Disaster Relief Fund to pay Rs 25 lakhs to the family of ruling front MLA Uzhavoor Vijayan, who had passed away in July 2017.

Skariah then goes on to question the delay in releasing full compensation for the victims of the 2018 flood.

“Even today, around 60,000 people are yet to get the Rs 10,000. They don’t have houses. There are people who are still living in relief camps. People who lost their houses are begging on the streets… I will only say one thing: Don’t give your money if this government comes asking for money for the disaster relief fund,” he said.

In the video, Skariah also expressed regrets that he was part of an effort to mobilize Rs 82 lakhs into the CM Disaster Relief Fund under the aegis of NRI organization British Malayali Charity Foundation. “I am sad and disappointed that that money is not being put to any use,” he said.

According to the latest data from the CMDRF website, the Fund collected about Rs 4,403 cr as of 19 August this year, and released about Rs 2,276 cr.

Out of this, Rs 1,637 was paid to families who lose their land and home, while Rs 458 cr was used to pay emergency financial assistance at the rate of Rs 6,200 per head (see below).

Income & Expenditure of CM DRF Fund

THE CASE

The case, which touches upon issues related to media freedom, has been filed under the ‘causing public nuisance‘ and ‘misleading the police‘ clauses of the Kerala Police Act of 2011.

The First Information Report mentions two clause of the Act — 118(b) and 120(o).

Clause 118(b) is targeted at people who try to mislead the police, the fire brigade or other essential services by giving misinformation and spreading rumors, including people who call in fake bomb threats and so on.

It promises imprisonment of up to 3 years for anyone who “knowingly spreads rumours or gives false alarm to mislead the police, fire brigade or any other essential service“.

The second clause mentioned in the FIR is 120(o), which is aimed at people who create nuisance to another person by repeatedly calling, messaging, emailing and so on.

Specifically, it promises up to 1 year of imprisonment for “causing, through any means of communication, a nuisance of himself to any person by repeated or undesirable or anonymous call, letter, writing, message, e-mail or through a messenger”.

SKARIAH’S REACTION

Skariah, for his part, called it a “fake case”, arguing that he neither tried to mislead or misinform the police or any other essential service, nor did he repeatedly call, message or try to contact anyone in any other way to cause nuisance to that person.

“Neither of these two sections are applicable to my video. They have been used because they could not find any section within the Indian Penal Code [to prosecute me]. I am within my rights to criticize someone, to criticize the government.”

He also rued that a “Left outfit that routinely holds protests and rallies against the intolerance of the the BJP, the central government and the Sangh Parivar is trying to suppress a [dissenting] opinion via a fake case”.

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