Several senior Indian journalists have been charged with sedition over their reporting and online posts about a farmers’ protest last week, sparking criticism from media associations.
The cases have been filed with police in at least five states against the journalists, who include Rajdeep Sardesai, a prominent anchor on the India Today television channel, and Vinod Jose, executive editor of the English-language Caravan magazine.
Filed by residents of the states, the cases allege that the journalists provoked violence during protests by farmers at New Delhi’s Red Fort on January 26 through inaccurate posts on Twitter and reports that police had killed a protester.
Tens of thousands of farmers have camped out on the outskirts of the capital for more than two months, demanding the withdrawal of new agricultural laws that they say benefit private buyers at the expense of farmers.
The government of Prime Minster Narendra Modi says reform of the agriculture sector will bring opportunities for farmers.
The protests turned violent on January 26 when farmers broke into the historic Red Fort complex, with one protester killed and hundreds injured.
Protesters allege the man died by police fire but the police denied shooting him.
“The accused tried to provoke the protesters for their political and personal gains by spreading false and misleading information online,” one complaint filed in Uttar Pradesh state said, echoing the language of the other filings.
Caravan Executive Editor Jose said his journalists on the ground heard from a witness and a relative of the dead man that he had been shot.
“This is an attack on free and independent reporting … Government wants only its official version to be published,” he said in a statement.
Journalist Mandeep Punia, who writes for Caravan, was also detained on Saturday at Singhu, one of the main protest sites. He was photographed being taken to court on Sunday, where he is expected to be charged on unknown offences, local media reported.
Indian media reports last week said television anchor Sardesai has been taken off air for two weeks by the India Today Group over his tweet in which he said a protester had been “killed allegedly in police firing at ITO”. Sardesai later retracted it.
A lawyer for Sardesai did not have any immediate comment when contacted on Monday.
Media watchdogs slam cases
Media groups condemned the police complaints and called them an intimidation tactic aimed at stifling the journalists.
The Editors Guild of India said it was disturbed that the police complaints had been filed under as many as 10 different legal provisions including sedition, promoting communal disharmony and insulting religious beliefs.
Anand Sahay, president of the Press Club of India, said it was not a coincidence that the cases had largely been registered in states ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The club said “early reports” suggested the protester had been shot dead though later it appeared he was killed when his tractor turned over.
“In a moving story, things change on a regular basis. Accordingly, the reporting reflects the circumstances. It is criminal to ascribe this to motivated reporting,” the club said in a statement on Friday.
Global media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for Punia and another journalist who was reportedly also detained to be released immediately.
“Indian authorities should allow journalists to do their work without interference,” the CPJ tweeted late on Saturday.
Activists say press freedom has shrunk under Modi’s rule, which has been marked by attacks on and intimidation of journalists. The government denies intimidating the press.
Last year, India dropped two places to 142nd in the annual World Press Freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders, which noted “constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists” and increased “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”.
Police block roads into Delhi
Meanwhile, Indian police and paramilitary dug ditches and spread razor wire across main roads into New Delhi to prevent protesting farmers entering the capital as the finance minister prepared to deliver the government’s annual budget to Parliament.
Internet and messaging services were blocked in several neighbourhoods on Monday on the outskirts of the city where protests turned violent last week, and security was stepped up around Parliament and other important government offices in the central district.
“The government has increased security to avoid any clash or violence when Parliament is in session,” said a senior official wished to remain anonymous in line with official policy.
“The idea is to keep everyone safe and avoid any escalation in tensions.”
On Friday, authorities used tear gas and batons to break up clashes at one of the protest sites near the city. In the past few days, more farmers have arrived with their tractors to join their protesting colleagues at the three major protest sites near New Delhi.
“The country was saddened by the insult to the Tricolor [Indian flag] on the 26th of January in Delhi,” Modi said in a radio address on Sunday, making his first public comments on last week’s violence.