The Croydon Advertiser today insisted it will continue to investigate the activities of a convicted conwoman despite one of its reporters being served by police with a Prevention of Harassment letter.
Reporter Gareth Davies was visited by police this week and warned by officers that he could be arrested if continues to contact Neelam Desai. He has doorstepped her once and sent her two emails.
In a comment piece the Local World title said: “The Advertiser does not believe reporters should get special treatment nor that allegations of harassment should be treated anything but seriously.
“But does it require three police officers to travel around 20 miles to serve what is, itself, an intimidating warning letter which states a reporter could be arrested for doing his job?
“The harassment warning remains in place. Despite this, we will not stop investigating and reporting on Desai – who has, at no point, directly contacted the Advertiser and denied the allegations – where we feel it is fair and appropriate to do so.
“Our reports have prompted two police investigations into her actions which, for one alleged victim, follows months of fighting for his accusations to be taken seriously.
“That progress has come from good, old-fashioned journalism – not ‘harassment’.”
The Daily Mail today ran a full-page report on the story and said in a comment column: “This paper has warned repeatedly of the Leveson Inquiry’s chilling effect on every Briton’s birthright, freedom of the press.
“Our worst fears are confirmed by the sinister treatment of journalist Gareth Davies – threatened with prosecution for doing his job on a matter of unquestionable public interest.
“If police chiefs allow their officers to carry on like this they will be endorsing a charter for criminals and dealing a death-blow to the public’s right to know.”
Kirsty Hughes of the campaign group Index on Censorship said: "This is a very worrying case.
"A journalist pursuing a serious case through questions and requests to interview is a world away from illegal phone-hacking and yet the police appear to be conflating the two in threatening a harassment case.
"The police need to show that they fully respect the role and responsibilities of a free media."
Senior Tory MP Rob Wilson told the Daily Telegraph: "This is a chilling reminder of what can go wrong if the environment for journalists swings too far in the wrong direction."
"The police have got this badly wrong and need to think very carefully about their actions. The public will take a very dim view of them protecting the right of a fraudster ahead of protecting the public."
A Scotland Yard spokesman said today: "The harassment letter was issued by a local safer neighbourhood team in response to a number of reports from the woman, who felt she was being harassed.
"The officers did this to ensure that the reporter was fully aware that allegations of harassment were being made against him.
"The woman first contacted police on March 5 and most recently on April 1."