The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on the government of the Indian state of Telangana to "immediately release" Ravi Prakash, the founder of an independent Telugu news website, Tolivelugu.
In a statement shared on its website on Tuesday, CPJ, an independent organisation working to promote press freedom worldwide, also urged the government to ensure that Prakash is not harassed because of his work.
Quoting media reports, CPJ said that Prakash had been arrested by Hyderabad police on Oct 5 on allegations of corporate fraud during his time as CEO of the TV9, adding that he was forced to resign in May "in the midst of a hostile corporate takeover".
However, the media advocacy group said that two of Prakash's colleagues had told CPJ that his arrest had occurred in "retaliation for his refusal to withdraw two interviews on his news portal accusing the Telangana chief minister and a leading industrialist of corruption".
One colleague, Tolivelugu reporter Raghu Ganji said on Sept 30, the website carried two interviews on its YouTube channel on a strike by 50,000 employees of a state-run transport corporation.
"In one interview, transport union leader E Aswathama Reddy accused Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao and industrialist PV Krishna Reddy of being involved in a multi-million dollar public transport scam. In another interview, opposition leader Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka made allegations of corruption against Rao and Reddy relating to a huge irrigation project in Kaleshwaram, Telangana."
As per CPJ, Reddy and Rao did not immediately respond to requests for comments sent to their staff via WhatsApp.
Steven Butler, the head of CPJ for Asia, said that Prakash was "clearly being persecuted in retaliation for critical coverage on the Tolivelugu news website".
"Authorities in Telangana should release him immediately," Butler added.
CPJ has documented cases in Telugu-speaking Telangana and Andhra Pradesh where political parties have threatened, physically attacked, and even arrested journalists, the watchdog said.
In July this year, Mojo TV’s then-CEO, Revathi Pogadadanda, was arrested in Hyderabad. Earlier in February, her channel’s crew was attacked on the streets over its coverage of women’s admission to the Sabarimala temple and resulting protests.
In May, newly elected chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Jaganmohan Reddy, openly threatened two news channels critical of him, according to news website Filter Kaapi.
Last month, an attempt by Indian authorities to charge an Indian journalist who exposed the poor quality of meals served at a government school in a district in Uttar Pradesh triggered protests over fears of worsening press freedom in India.
Journalists in India have complained of deteriorating media freedoms and vicious online attacks over the past few years in the world's largest democracy. Laws have frequently been deployed by politicians from all parties seeking to stifle social media criticism.