Amid strong protests by journalists’ unions over police action against a newspaper report on Aadhaar data leak, Information Technology and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Monday asserted that the Centre is committed to the freedom of the press, and the FIR has been filed against “unknown” entities.

“Government is fully committed to freedom of Press as well as to maintaining security and sanctity of Aadhaar for India’s development. FIR is against unknown,” Prasad said on Twitter. “I’ve suggested UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) to request Tribune & its journalist to give all assistance to police in investigating real offenders.”

According to the Delhi police, UIDAI Deputy Director BM Patnaik told them that an ‘input’ was received from The Tribune that it had purchased a service being offered by anonymous sellers over WhatsApp that provided unrestricted access to details of any of the Aadhaar numbers created in India. On January 5, Patnaik filed a complaint and the FIR was registered the same day, the police said.

The FIR named the reporter, Rachna Khaira, even as the daily said it would defend its freedom to undertake investigative journalism. The police, however, said the FIR mentions the names of the reporter and the people she reached out to to “purchase” the Aadhaar data, but they were not named as accused.

However, the reporter has been booked under IPC Sections 419 (punishment for cheating under impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery), 471 (using a forged document) and also under sections of the Information Technology Act and the Aadhaar Act.

‘Deeply concerned’ Meanwhile, the Editors Guild of India and the Confederation of Newspaper and News Agency Employees’ Organisations (CNNAEO) have condemned the police action and sought government intervention for the withdrawal of the case. Criticising the lodging of the FIR, the Editors Guild said it is “deeply concerned” over reports that the UIDAI Deputy Director had registered a complaint in which Khaira has been named.

“It is unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press. Instead of penalising the reporter, UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public,” said the Guild in a statement.

The CNNAEO, in a statement, condemned the UIDAI, saying it should highlight errors in the report, if any, instead of taking penal action. “The action amounts to an attack on the freedom of the press and also denial of access to the press from reporting any news unpalatable to those in authority,” it said.

The National Alliance of Journalists and Delhi Union of Journalists also condemned the police action. “We believe the reporter should be commended for investigating and bringing to light the easy access that touts and hackers have to the UIDAI’s allegedly impenetrable data site and its availability for as little as ₹500 to anyone who wants it,” they said in a joint statement.

“We welcome the numerous solidarity statements issued by journalists and their organisations across the country and call for united action to demand justice for The Tribune . The Network of Women & Media, the Editors Guild of India, the Broadcasting Editors’ Association, the Jammu Press Club, the Chandigarh Press Club, the Press Club of India, the Press Association and the Indian Women’s Press Corps are among those who have spoken up against the government’s arbitrary action.”

Political jibes Meanwhile, there was criticism from the political class, with Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien saying: “I condemn the FIR against journalist from Tribune who reported on Aadhaar leak. Let journalists do their job.”

From within the BJP, MP Shatrughan Sinha had stronger words. “What kind of ‘justice’ is this? Is there only politics of vendetta? Even public is being victimised for coming out honestly for society and the nation,” he tweeted.

This is fascism, says Cong

The Congress has termed the FIR by the UIDAI against The Tribune and its reporter as ‘fascism’. The party urged the UIDAI to withdraw the FIR unilaterally and asked the BJP to stop its alleged “systematic attack” against journalists.

Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said The Tribune identified the backdoor in the Aadhaar architecture and warned the Centre that the privacy of hundreds of thousands of private citizens is at risk. “They are rewarded with an FIR. If this is not fascism, if this is not trying to muzzle dissent, if this is not gross abuse of state authority then I am afraid we possibly don’t have a definition for it,” Tewari said.

The Centre is perpetuating an atmosphere of fear, terror, intimidation and coercion, he said.

“Dissenting journalists are put to death. Media organisations who have dared to speak truth have been hounded and targeted. NDTV was raided. The Wire has been subject to systematic coercion and intimidation. But what happened to The Tribune actually takes the cake,” Tewari said.