'Shooting the Messenger': Newspaper Editorials Slam FIRs Against Journalists

The editorials said that the cases smack of intimidation and criticised the continued use of sedition "at the slightest" pretext.

New Delhi: In the days after police forces in at least four different states registered sedition cases against six journalists, leading national English newspapers strongly criticised the move in their editorials.

The cases claim that India Today TV’s Rajdeep Sardesai, National Herald’s senior consulting editor Mrinal Pande, the Caravan magazine’s editor and founder Paresh Nath, its editor Anant Nath and executive editor Vinod K. Jose and Qaumi Awaz editor Zafar Agha intentionally shared “misleading” information regarding the death of a protester during the farmers’ tractor rally on Republic Day. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor is also named, apart from an unknown person.

While eyewitnesses claimed that the farmer died after being shot, the Delhi police later said he was killed when his tractor overturned.

Subsequently, police in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur have also registered an FIR against The Wire‘s Siddharth Varadarajan and Ismat Ara for reporting the family’s doubts over the police’s version.

The newspaper newspapers took a stance against the FIRs, highlighting that the journalists were only reporting a developing story as it unfolded and did not intend to cause any disharmony or violence.

In its editorial, the Times of India observed in its editorial on January 29 that the range of charges – from sedition to harming national integrity and promoting communal disharmony – “smacks of intimidation rather than any real concern for rule of law”.

“As the Editors Guild of India has underlined, this is how journalism proceeds, fresh information often overturning earlier accounts, especially when there is action happening on multiple fronts. To construe these actions as malicious and intended to destroy communal harmony and incite violence equates to shooting the messenger,” the editorial said.

It said accusing journalists of sedition “is becoming a fairly common tack”, pointing to the cases of three journalists in Manipur becoming victims of this practice. “Ironically, this provision used to be invoked by the British Raj against Indian nationalists, accusing them of traitorous behaviour,” the editorial observed.

Repurposing sedition against journalists negates democracy’s founding tenets to recognise the rights of news media “to report without fear or favour”, TOI said. It added:

“While the private complainants are entitled to their opinion, the UP and MP governments, which surely understand the critical role of free press in invigorating democratic institutions, must withdraw these cases lodged overzealously by police. Additionally, [the] Supreme Court must also take cognisance of how its guidelines narrowing the applicability of sedition have fallen on deaf ears.”

Mrinal Pande, Rajdeep Sardesai and Ananth Nag.

The government’s response to the clashes reported during the tractor rally has been “criminalising the protesting farmer and targeting the journalist”, noted the Indian Express in its January 30 editorial. The newspaper criticised the police’s decision to “indiscriminately” name farmer leaders in its FIRs relating to the violence, adding that the “farmers’ agitation has articulated real anxieties that have gathered around the Centre’s three farm laws”.

On the issue of FIRs against journalists, the newspaper said their alleged crime “was an error that calls for soul-searching within”. It said at a time when the media’s legitimacy is sought to be undermined by “populism and majoritarianism on one side and the no-rules world of social media on the other”, the onus is on the media to protect its space and professional standards through fair and accurate news-gathering. It concluded:

“That said, for the police — especially UP police, with a record scarred by encounters and which has yet to live down that shameful night when it cremated a rape victim without her family’s consent — to slap charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against journalists is bizarre. This is a troubling moment … Filing FIRs, throwing the IPC book at critics, can never be policy in a democracy.”

While the Hindustan Times‘s February 1 editorial warned journalists to report only after verification, particularly when during a sensitive event, it added that this error “cannot justify what appears to be a politically-driven campaign to legally entangle journalists for a host of crimes they did not commit”. The newspaper added:

“[A] mistake in reporting — which Mr Sardesai, for instance, immediately corrected when new information came to light — cannot be treated as akin to a conspiracy against the State. The fact that fake news and hate speech are a staple on Indian news television — but little is done about it since it often suits powers-that-be — lends the current case an air of selectivity. Even as the media must improve its reporting standards, the political regime must step back, for FIRs will have a chilling effect on free speech and liberty.”

On January 30, The Hindu noted in its editorial that the police have gone “overboard” in their response to “tweets that reflected an early, and factually incorrect, piece of information”. The newspaper observed that it was “strange” that the complainants and the police have sought to link the violence during the tractor rally “with the circulation of a piece of misleading information for a short period”.

Farmers march during their tractor rally to protest against Centres farm reform laws, amid the 72nd Republic Day celebrations, at GT Karnal road in New Delhi, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

“For one thing, the clashes between some of the protesters and the police had already started when the lone death among the protesters occurred; and, second, the position was clarified in a short while,” it said.

The editorial said there is now “little surprise” in the attempt to invoke sedition at the slightest pretext. “It is part of the now-familiar practice of weaving a narrative of an imagined threat to national security whenever some sections of the police get an opportunity to slap criminal cases against journalists and dissenters seen as critical of the current establishment,” it said.

It said the narrative that all those who had put out similar information through their social media handles acted in a concerted manner and participated in a conspiracy was “exasperating”. It concluded:

“There is little doubt that the registration of cases in two States different from the place where the farmer-protester’s death occurred indicates an attempt to build a narrative that media misreporting led to some of the violence that day. It also shows a tendency not to miss an opportunity to harass and intimidate journalists.”