Eight journalists who covered the farmers' movement in India and violence in Delhi on 26 January are facing baseless criminal charges, says Human Rights Watch.
The police in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Haryana states have filed cases of sedition and promoting communal disharmony against six senior journalists and editors – Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, Vinod K Jose, and a Congress Party politician Shashi Tharoor – for allegedly "misreporting" the facts around the death of a protester.
Delhi police, who report to the BJP Home Minister Amit Shah, also filed a case against them, said Human Rights Watch in a report on Tuesday.
On 31 January, Uttar Pradesh police filed a case – of promoting enmity between communities and making statements prejudicial to national integration – against Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, for tweeting a news report on claims made by a dead protester's family members.
The protester's family members said that he died from gunshot injuries while the police said he died when his tractor overturned.
On 30 January, Delhi police also detained journalists Dharmender Singh and Mandeep Punia, who were covering the protests, alleging that the two "misbehaved" with the police.
Punia had been investigating a mob who threw stones at the farmers and vandalised their tents at the protest site on the Singhu border between Delhi and Haryana on 29 January.
While the police released Singh the next day, they sent Punia, a freelance journalist, to judicial custody for 14 days for allegedly obstructing and assaulting a police officer.
They had been covering the story of mob members saying they were local residents, while news reports said the members were BJP supporters belonging to a Hindu nationalist group.
The Delhi police have filed 44 criminal cases and arrested 122 people in relation to the violence.
The police have also filed cases of rioting, attempted murder and criminal conspiracy against at least 37 well-known farmers' union leaders and activists alleging that they made inflammatory speeches and were involved in the violence.
These include the prominent social activists Medha Patkar and Yogendra Yadav, President of the Bharatiya Kisan Union's Haryana unit Gurnam Singh Chaduni and the Bharatiya Kisan Union Spokesperson Rakesh Tikait.
Most of the farmer representatives named in the criminal cases had been involved in talks with the BJP government on the farm laws over the last several weeks. These farmer unions have dissociated themselves from the violence.
"The Indian authorities' response to protests has focused on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing critics of the government, and prosecuting those reporting on the events," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"The government instead should conduct a transparent and impartial investigation into the 26 January violence in Delhi," she added.
Journalist associations and opposition political parties have widely condemned the crackdown. The Editors Guild of India said the police cases were "an attempt to: intimidate, harass, browbeat, and stifle the media."
It demanded that the cases be immediately withdrawn and said that the media should, "be allowed to report without fear and with freedom."
The Press Club of India, Press Association, the Indian Women's Press Corps, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Indian Journalists Union also demanded the withdrawal of cases and pressed for the repeal of the colonial-era sedition law used to silence dissent.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been protesting on the outskirts of Delhi since November 2020, demanding that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government withdraw three farm laws passed in September.
The protests were peaceful until 26 January, India's Republic Day, when protesters broke through police barricades to enter Delhi and clashed with the police.
A group of protesters breached the historic Red Fort and hoisted the Sikh religious flag alongside the national flag. Many of the farmers are Sikhs.
One protester, Navreet Singh Hundal, 26, died in the violence. Delhi police said nearly 400 police officers were injured.
Following the violence on 26 January, the central government shut down mobile internet services at several protest sites bordering Delhi to "maintain public safety."
The Haryana state government also suspended mobile internet services in most of the state until 1 February.
Internet rights groups condemned the shutdowns, saying the government was using them "to suppress the free flow of information related to peaceful assembly and the fundamental right to protest."
Under international human rights law, India has an obligation to ensure that restrictions on the internet and other forms of communication are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern.
Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information or to harm people's ability to freely assemble and express political views, Human Rights Watch said.
"Indian authorities should be releasing activists and others already jailed or facing criminal charges in politically motivated cases, not adding to that list," Ganguly said.
"They should use investigations to hold those genuinely responsible for violence to account, not as a means to silence outspoken critics and shut down protests," she added.