NEW DELHI: Several senior Indian journalists are facing charges of sedition over their reporting and online posts about a protest by farmers last week, sparking criticism of the legal action from media associations.
The cases have been filed with police in at least five states against the journalists including Rajdeep Sardesai, a prominent anchor on the India Today television channel, and Vinod Jose,
executive editor of the Caravan magazine.
The cases, filed by residents of the states, allege that the journalists provoked violence during protests by farmers at New Delhi’s Red Fort on Jan 26 through incorrect posts on Twitter and reports that police had killed a protester.
“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.
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.
A lawyer for Sardesai did not have any immediate comment when contacted on Monday. The Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India and several other journalist groups condemned the police complaints and called them an intimidation tactic aimed at stifling the media.
Anand Sahay, President of the Press Club of India, said it was not a coincidence that the cases had largely been registered in states that are 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.
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.
India dropped two places to 142nd in the annual World Press Freedom rankings by the group Reporters Without Borders last year, 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. The Editors Guild of India, which represents newspapers, 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.
Meanwhile, Twitter blocked scores of accounts and tweets in India at the government´s request, including those of a prominent news magazine and farmers staging mass protests in the capital.
An IT ministry source told AFP the government had directed the social media giant to act against about 250 Twitter accounts and tweets which posed a “grave threat to public order”. Tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting since November 26 in camps on the outskirts of New Delhi against the deregulation of the agriculture sector.
One rally last week turned into a deadly rampage. Since then, police have detained dozens of farmers and a journalist who writes for Caravan magazine. Caravan, some farmers activists and unions, some opposition leaders, an actor and an economist were among those whose Twitter accounts were blocked inside India.
A Twitter spokeswoman said “it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time” if “a properly scoped” request is made. A spokesman for the farmers said their accounts “had not done anything wrong” apart from supporting the long-running protests.
Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders slammed the suspensions, which it called a “shocking case of blatant censorship”. “By ordering these blockings, the Home Affairs Ministry is behaving like an Orwellian Ministry of Truth who wants to impose its own narrative about the farmers´ protests,” the group said.
Since the violence last Tuesday, at least five cases have been registered against journalists and an opposition politician, accusing them of sedition and criminal conspiracy over their reporting and tweets on the rally. India regularly uses internet shutdowns, most recently at the farmers´ protest sites, to limit information sharing during disturbances.