Journalists in Delhi staged a demonstration in front of the new police headquarters in Patel Chowk area on Sunday afternoon to protest the arrest of Mandeep Punia, a freelancer and contributor to the Caravan magazine. Punia was taken into custody on Saturday while he was on an assignment to cover the clashes at the Singhu border, where farmers are protesting against the new agricultural laws.

Protestors gathered outside the police headquarters were heard shouting slogans calling for Punia’s release. Some of them chanted “Patrakar Ekta Zindabad! [Long live the unity of journalists!]”. However, police personnel asked journalists to maintain coronavirus-induced protocols, including physical distancing. The protestors were also asked to disperse in view of the pandemic.

The Delhi Police accused Punia of misbehaving with a station house officer on duty at the protest site in Singhu. Another journalist, Dharmender Singh from Online News India, was also picked by the police. However, Singh was released after he signed an undertaking, reported NDTV.

Punia has been charged under Indian Penal Code sections 186 (obstructing a public servant from discharging public functions), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from performing duties), and 332 (voluntarily causing hurt). Caravan magazine’s Political Editor Hartosh Singh Bal on Saturday said that they would take “whatever legal recourse” necessary.

Several states have registered cases against journalists who have reported on the death of a farmer due to alleged police firing during a tractor rally on January 26.

The Uttar Pradesh Police on Saturday filed a FIR against The Wire’s Founding Editor Siddharth Varadarajan for tweeting an article published on the news website. The article, published on Friday, cited the family of Navreet Singh. They rejected the Delhi Police’s claims that the farmer had died after his tractor overturned. The family has alleged that the man was shot.

The Delhi Police on Saturday became the fifth one to file a case against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and six journalists for allegedly sharing unverified news about Navreet Singh’s death. Besides Tharoor, the police named India Today journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, National Herald’s senior consulting editor Mrinal Pande, Qaumi Awaz editor Zafar Agha, The Caravan magazine’s editor and founder Paresh Nath, The Caravan editor Anant Nath and its executive editor Vinod K Jose.

The Uttar Pradesh Police was the first to file an FIR against the seven in Noida that includes charges of sedition, followed by a similar case filed by the police in Madhya Pradesh. Other FIRs were registered in Gurugram and Bengaluru on Friday.

The FIRs were registered despite criticism from several media bodies. The Editors Guild of India described the action as a concerted attempt to “stifle and harass” media. On Saturday, journalists also assembled at the Press Club of India in Delhi to protest against the FIRs. The meeting was organised by a number of media bodies, including the Editors Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Delhi Union of Journalists, and Indian Journalists Union.

“Today the atmosphere is such, it’s so poisonous, so toxic that anyone who wants to go to the court perhaps is a fool,” Press Club of India President Anand Sahay told PTI. “You know what the result is going to be. Even during the emergency, rules against journalists were not so harsh, I don’t recall anybody going in for sedition.”

Delhi Union of Journalists SK Pande also claimed that the current situation was like an “undeclared emergency”. “What is happening today is a situation which is an undeclared emergency,” he told the news agency. “People have seen what the emergency was, we are heading for something worse, where if you raise the voice against the powers that are you will be targeted whether through sedition, or filing of FIRs so that you lose desire to fight or feel compelled to call it a day.”

Farm law protests

Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the edge of New Delhi for over two months, seeking the repeal of agricultural laws passed in September. The protests had largely been peaceful but violence erupted on January 26, when a tractor rally planned to coincide with Republic Day celebrations turned chaotic.

Some protestors broke through barricades and poured into the city, clashing with the police that tried to push them back with tear gas and a baton charge. Besides the death of one protestor, several others, including 300 Delhi Police personnel were also wounded.

The Delhi Police said on Saturday that 84 people have been arrested and 38 first information reports filed so far in connection with the violence.

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FIR against ‘The Wire’ editor Siddharth Varadarajan in UP for tweeting article on farmer’s death