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.
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 growers.
The government of Prime Minster Narendra Modi says reform of the agriculture sector will bring opportunities for farmers.
The protests turned violent on Jan 26, when farmers broke into the historic Red Fort complex, with one protester killed and hundreds injured.
At the time, a witness told Reuters the protester was killed when the tractor he was driving overturned and crushed him but there was also talk he had been shot. Police, who had fired tear gas on the day, 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.
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 (Feb 1).
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 last 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.