Talk about ‘false corona positive reports’ gets 2 arrested in Odisha

The Odisha police have arrested two persons, including a Covid-recovered man, after an audio clip of the two persons allegedly discussing “false corona positive reports” in state hospitals went viral. A TV channel, TV channel belonging to the wife of senior BJP leader Baijayant Panda, has also been sent a notice for airing the clip.

Bhubaneswar commissionerate police arrested one Biswajit Mohanty, a businessman, 47, and his friend Laxmikanta Behera, 46, after their conversation about the latter’s experience in a Covid hospital went viral. A showcause notice was issued to OTV, Odisha’s biggest news channel run by Jagi Mangat Panda.

Bhubaneswar police commissionerate, in a statement, said the two were charged with criminal conspiracy as well as Sections 269, 270 and 505(b) of Indian Penal Code as well as Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act and section 52 of Disaster Management Act. Behera had recently recovered from Covid-19.

“The audio clip was propagated by OTV news channel. The recording has been prepared, circulated, edited, uploaded and propagated with malafide and mischievous intention as the clip contains misleading and false information about Covid pandemic. The conversation is trying to make others believe that there are false corona positive reports and people are being shifted to hospitals showing them positive as there is a certain target of number of patients to be fetched by hospitals,” the police statement said.

However, a careful perusal of the 9.36-minute long audio clip of Mohanty and Behera’s conversation on August 6 shows nothing serious that could trigger panic or anxiety about Covid. The freewheeling conversation between the two friends apart from talking of some “scams” has Behera praising the quality of food being served in the hospital.

The wife of Mohanty said it was grossly undemocratic the way police picked up his husband on Sunday evening and released him on Monday morning before arresting him a few hours later.

“Did they say anything against the government in the audio clip? My husband was talking to his friend and wanted to know about his experiences in Covid hospital. Is it a crime to discuss the Covid situation? My husband is diabetic and needs to take his medicines on time. However, he was picked up on the pretext of some discussion and kept away from home for more than 12 hours,” she alleged. The police also booked OTV and issued a show-cause notice to the channel for airing the audio clip.

Though people have been booked by the Odisha police during the pandemic, many believe the arrest of the two persons in the audio clip was the result of its airing in OTV, run by Panda’s wife. Once a close confidant of chief minister Naveen Patnaik, the former MP is now his principal bete noire after they fell out some five years ago.

The BJP leader was persecuted in October 2018 and his choppers seized by the Odisha police for his alleged bid to land over the Chilika Lake, an ‘eco-sensitive, no-flying zone’ in the coastal belt of Orissa.

Responding to the arrests, Panda tweeted: “Odisha police have arrested two men who posted their phone chat online. Their “crime”? One of them allegedly tested Covid +ve & spoke of fake “treatment” at massive govt cost. This is just the latest of massive Corona related corruption scams in Odisha. Will FoE activists speak up,” asked Panda.

The arrests and the showcause notice to the TV channel has triggered outrage in the state with several prominent voices slamming the government’s move.

“Should not TV channels air complaints about the goings-on in Covid hospitals? What kind of democracy are we living in,” said renowned political commentator Rabi Das.

Mayurbhanj MP Bishweswar Tudu too criticised the arrests and the showcause notice to the TV channel calling it a vengeful act.

Union minister for MSME, Pratap Sarangi, said it was an attempt to suppress the freedom of speech of the media.

The arrests come at a time when there have been litany of serious complaints about the government’s management of Covid-19 situation while cases are surging due to high positivity rate.

Last month, the Covid-19 test results of a forest official in Ganjam district, was told to his family 24 hours after he died.

Similarly, a 42-year-old man in Berhampur town in Covid hotspot district of Ganjam died in his home after an ambulance refused to take him to hospital over suspicions that he was Covid positive.

The state on Monday posted 13 deaths, its highest single-day surge.

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