New Delhi: A group of UN rights experts has written to the Union government expressing concerns regarding the death threats received by journalist Meena Kotwal and the failure of the police to take cognisance of the same.
The undersigned include UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye; Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes; and the Working Group on the discrimination against women and girls, the members of which include Melissa Upreti (chair), Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (vice-chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić and Meskerem Geset Techane.
The letter, which had been sent to the government on February 3, had remained confidential for 60 days. However, due to the government’s failure to respond, it has been made public now.
As the letter details, Kotwal is a Dalit woman human rights defender, journalist and founder of an online news portal, the Mooknayak, which covers the issues of Dalits and other marginalised groups in the country and advocates for their rights.
Background of Kotwal’s case
On December 25, 2021, Kotwal posted a video online of her burning the Manusmriti on ‘Manusmriti Dahan Diwas’ (Manusmriti burning day; celebrated to commemorate B.R. Ambedkar’s symbolic burning of the book in 1927).
The letter describes the Manusmriti as a text believed to be “regressive and against women’s rights.”
The day after Kotwal posted the video, the letter notes, she began receiving phone calls from men who claimed to be from various right-wing groups, such as the Bajrang Dal, the Karni Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who made threats to her life.
The letter states that in one such phone call, Kotwal has told that she would “suffer the same fate as Gauri Lankesh.”
Kotwal was even told that her phone number was being circulated on WhatsApp groups and social media platforms with instructions for her to be threatened. The callers told her to remove the video of her burning the text and when she refused, they threatened her with physical violence.
One of the callers reportedly claimed to be a police officer and used casteiest slurs against her in addition to threats of violence.
Kotwal reportedly filed a complaint on December 30 at the Ambedkar Nagar police station in Delhi, which included screenshots of abusive texts. However, when the station house officer (SHO) told a sub inspector to file her complaint, the latter reportedly made her wait a long time, told her not to post such videos and did not file a first information report (FIR) in the case.
No investigation can take place unless an FIR in the matter has been filed.
Kotwal then submitted a copy of her complaint to the additional deputy commissioner of police, South-West Delhi and was told that an FIR would be filed at the Ambedkar Nagar station itself. Yet, till date, no FIR has been filed, in contravention of the law.
The rapporteur’s questions and concerns
In this light, the UN experts on human rights wrote to the Union government seeking the filing of said FIR and expressing concerns regarding the danger the police’s inaction puts Kotwal in.
The letter describes the threats made to Kotwal as a “deliberate and sustained campaign of threats and abuse” and that these threats are particularly disconcerting because they “appear to be in direct retaliation of her exercising her right to freedom of opinion and expression online”.
The letter also says that the threats against Kotwal constitute a “violation of international human rights law and standards” since Kotwal, as a woman and a person from the Dalit community, is “disproportionately subjected to multiple forms of discrimination and violence” and is “extremely marginalised”.
The letter also expresses concerns that the threats against Kotwal have come against a backdrop of “orchestrated intimidation campaigns against groups of women online” which has, of late, created a “seriously concerning online environment for women journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and activists”.
“The inaction of authorities responsible for filing the FIR in relation to the complaint has the potential to put Ms. Kotwal in physical danger, due to the death threats she is receiving. We urge your Excellency’s Government to pressure the authorities to file a FIR based on Ms. Kotwal’s complaint in the Ambedkar Nagar police station,” the letter reads.
The letter concludes with four explicit questions requesting comments on Kotwal’s allegations, the measures taken to investigate Kotwal’s case specifically and those taken for other cases where threats are made to journalists, human rights defenders and the like, and measures taken by the government to combat such threats.
Finally, the letter says that if the government fails to respond within a period of 60 days, the communication will be made public, as has happened.
This is not the first time Special Rapporteur Lawlor has written to the Union government regarding its treatment of journalists and human rights activists. In the past, she and other UN experts have written to the government seeking the release of activist Khurram Parvez and even issued a statement on the Union government’s various failures relating to the custodial death of activist Stan Swamy.