A meeting was held at the Press Club of India on January 30 to protest against the registration of FIRs against six journalists by the police in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Vinod Jose, Paresh Nath, and Anant Nath have been for sedition, criminal conspiracy, and promoting enmity for reporting and tweeting on the death of a protester during the Republic Day tractor rally organised by farmers protesting against the Narendra Modi government’s farm laws.
Sardesai works for India Today, Pande is consulting editor at National Herald, Zafar Agha is editor of Qaumi Awaz. Vinod Jose, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath are associated with the Caravan.
The protester, Navreet Singh, was killed when the tractor he was driving through a police barricade at ITO overturned. Social media was soon rife with speculation that he’d been shot just as he neared the barricade. The Delhi police denied this, maintaining that his death was an accident. The postmortem said as much, although about it.
The , based on an eyewitness testimony, that Navreet was likely shot by the police. Sardesai, Pande and Agha indicated the same in their tweets. Sardesai had also said on live TV that Navreet had been shot in the head. In an evening broadcast, he that he had jumped the gun and that the police’s version, that Navreet died after his tractor overturned, “appears much more credible than what the protesters are claiming”. He later his tweet and also posted the police’s denial; Pande and Agha deleted their tweets as well.
Addressing the protest meeting, Sardesai said, “We have all our differences, we can continuously fight with each other on numerous issues, but on this one very basic issue my only request is let us show some solidarity. We may make mistakes as journalists, but there are enough fora for us to correct those mistakes.”
Jyoti Malhotra, president of the Indian Women’s Press Corps, and national editor at the Print, said, “We became journalists because we wanted to speak up, tell the story both on the left and the right and in the middle, we have to give both sides of the story.”
Terming the current situation in India an “undeclared emergency”, senior lawyer Sanjay Hegde told the meeting, “Today we don’t have a government which is totally wedded to the spirit of the law and the constitution nor do we possibly have judges who are as zealous of guarding civil liberties as that magistrate was.”
Referring to the FIRs filed against the journalists, he added, “It’s curious that all these complaints target the same set of people, there is almost a conspiracy of complainants to shut down the same set of people or make an example of the same set of people.”
Speaking to Newslaundry at the meeting, Suhasini Haidar, national editor of the Hindu, said, “The government cannot use British-era laws like sedition and criminal defamation to stifle the voice of journalists. Each of the journalists who has been served with sedition notices represents all journalists and the government, in a sense, is trying to tell all journalists that they can act against them.”
She added, “Mistakes will happen, errors in reporting will happen, the voice of a journalist cannot be stifled by using these as excuses in order to ensure that there’s no coverage of issues that are inconvenient to the government.” Smita Sharma, an independent journalist, echoed the sentiment, “It may not be possible to do quick fact-checking the moment you get that piece of information. The point is, did the reporter do that deliberately to incite violence? Did the reporter after having made a mistake apologise for it or not, retracted the information or not? If all that has been done that context needs to be seen.”
Sanjay Kapoor, general secretary of the Editors Guild of India and editor of the Hard News magazine, told Newslaundry, “There was some controversy over the person who died, whether he was killed by a bullet or he died because of an accident, it was an evolving story, you may start with a certain view about the story and it may evolve into something else.”
What does the government seek to achieve by going after journalists in this manner? “The government is sending a message that while on paper we’re a democracy, we are behaving like several undemocratic states of the world,” replied Anand Kumar Sahay, secretary general of the Press Club of India. “Even if a reporter has made a mistake, it’s not a crime. To say something unknowingly which is 100 percent not right is not a crime and, therefore, governments can’t use that as a pretext to bring these dangerous laws like sedition against journalists.”