Around 8.30 pm on Sunday, while he was out for dinner, Manas Roshan, a 26-year-old reporter with NDTV, got a call from his brother. Three policemen in plainclothes had come to their house in Sheikh Sarai in South Delhi, looking for him. “They said they had got my name from a list of people in touch with the JNU students who were absconding,” said Roshan.

His brother told them he was a journalist. "They looked surprised," said Roshan. "They said, ‘That explains why he is calling students.’”

The same time, in another South Delhi neighbourhood, policemen landed at the home of a crime reporter with a national newspaper. He was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus where the students accused of sedition, including Umar Khalid, had resurfaced. "My mom was alarmed," he said, not wanting to be identified. "She called and said these cops have arrived. Ghar waapis aa jao." Come back home.

Several newspapers have reported that Delhi police has been calling or visiting the homes of journalists who have reported on the police crackdown at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Indian Express reported that nearly 50 people including journalists and professors have been questioned in the last 10 days.

Heena Kausar, a 27-year-old reporter who covers education for the Hindustan Times, got a call from a policeman around 7 pm on Sunday. The policeman said he got her number from the call details records of Anirban Bhattacharya, one of the three JNU students for whom the police has issued a look-out notice. Kausar told the policeman that she was a reporter. "Everybody knows journalists make calls to people involved in story," she said.

The call lasted two minutes. But it left Kausar rattled.

Criticising the police action, Sanjoy Narayan, the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindustan Times, said, "We find it disturbing that journalists should be the subject of police questioning over stories they are reporting. It is critical that they should be able to gather and disseminate information independently, and be seen to do so. Drawing journalists into the investigative processes of the police threatens that independence, and with it, their ability to fulfill their function in the public interest."

Sreenivasan Jain, managing editor of NDTV, said the police visits were "not a simple case of getting information". "Landing up unannounced at the homes of journalists is unusual and uncalled for," he said. "It suggests a form of insidious intimidation."

Police defence

Rajendra Singh of the Delhi police’s Special Task Force, who is leading the investigation in the JNU case, defended the police action. He said that the police had obtained “contacts lists of Umar and other wanted persons". Those on the lists had been "approached to find out under what circumstances they have contacted the students”.

“We did not segregate journalists from other persons,” he added. “If he is reporter, and doing his duty, that is alright. If there is something more, then we have to question."

He added: "After lookout notice has been issued, if you are contacting that person, it is our duty to check."

This, however, does not add up with the accounts of the journalists who were contacted by the police.

Roshan, who works with Jain on the show Truth vs Hype, spent several days reporting on the JNU row. But he said he did not speak to Khalid, or the other students named in the First Information Report. "That's the funny thing," he said. "I haven't contacted the students accused of sedition. Their phones were switched off." He said he had spoken to ordinary students and leaders of the Student Federation of India and the All India Students Association.

The newspaper reporter too said he had not spoken to the students against whom a lookout notice has been issued. "I have not spoken to Umar," he said, "I have spoken to his friends."

These accounts suggest that the police has cast a wider surveillance net that goes beyond the accused students.

Jain said this "raises questions over the ambit and nature of police surveillance".

Beyond journalism

Journalists concede that the police might be on firmer ground questioning those who have known JNU students from their days together at colleges or workplaces. Their conversations with the students could go beyond the professional journalist-source relationship.

Atul Chaurasia, who works with Catch News, knew one of the students Riyaz Ul Haq from an earlier job at Tehelka, where they were colleagues. The police visited Chaurasia's home on Saturday. "They just asked me if I had information about his whereabouts," he said. He had spoken with Riyaz on February 14 and 15 – well before the lookout notice was issued, and for the purpose of getting information for a story.

"Every citizen of this country has a responsibility to assist the police," said Bharat Bhushan, Editor of Catch News. "Being asked questions doesn't stigmatise a person, providing it is done in a civilised manner."

Bhushan pointed out that journalists do not have any special privileges under Indian law. But, he added, "if they were not dealing with criminals – and sometimes journalists have to talk to criminals too – but if there were no charges against them, if there was no look out notice against them, then at that point of time, journalists were free to talk to them."

Narayan of Hindustan Times said, "The Delhi police and other agencies must take care to ensure that representatives of the press are able to go about their work unhindered, and free from intimidation."