Multiple press bodies have demanded the withdrawal of cases against journalists and news website The Wire, after the police in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district on Wednesday named them in a case related to the assault of an elderly Muslim man.

Apart from The Wire, journalists Rana Ayyub and Mohammed Zubair have been named in the First Information Report, which alleges that the accused did not verify their tweets on the incident and thereby gave a “communal angle” to it. Writer Saba Naqvi, social media platform Twitter and three Congress leaders are also among the accused.

They have been booked under Sections 153 (provocation for rioting), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 295A (acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 505 (mischief), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

The Editors Guild of India said it was “deeply concerned” about the UP government’s track record of filing FIRs against journalists to discourage them from reporting without fear.

“It is the duty of the journalists to report on the basis of sources and in case facts become contested later on, to report the emerging versions and facets,” it said. “For police to wade into such professional calls by journalists and attribute criminality to their actions is destructive of freedom of speech, which is constitutionally protected and is an entrenched feature of the rule of law.”

The Editors Guild pointed out that the police’s selective targeting of journalists critical of the central government , when thousands of people had tweeted the video of the incident. “The Guild condemns this wanton misuse of laws to criminalize reporting and dissent to harass independent media and demands that the FIRs be withdrawn immediately,” it added.

The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that the cases be dropped immediately.

“Indian authorities singling out journalists, some of whom are known for critical coverage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, for sharing and commenting on a video looks suspiciously like selective law enforcement and amounts to a serious attack on press freedom,” said Steven Butler, the body’s Asia program coordinator.

Reporters Without Borders said the case was clearly judicial harassment. “We urge Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to recover a semblance of credibility by ordering the immediate withdrawal of the charges against the journalists named in this absurd First Information Report,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Digipub News India Foundation, an association of over 60 independent digital publications, said that the mala fide nature of the case undermines the right to free expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

In a statement, the association said that the list of accused makes it clear that the authorities were targeting journalists and publications that are perceived to be critical of the ruling dispensation, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“The implications of this case go beyond those who have been accused here: the Uttar Pradesh Police is holding out a threat to those who report the voices of victims of crimes,” the statement said. “It is attempting to create an atmosphere in which all journalists and news organisations will be dissuaded from reporting anything but the official version.”

The association demanded the immediate withdrawal of the cases against the accused. and The Wire are members of the association.

The International Press Institute condemned the filing of the cases, adding that “legal harassment” of media organisations and journalists should immediately stop in India.

“The filing of criminal complaints has become an all-too-common method of harassing independent journalists and media in India,” International Press Institute Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “News coverage and the sharing of information about events in the public interest is not a crime.”

The Press Club of India also demanded that the FIR be quashed, and appealed to the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure journalists are not made “easy targets of police high-handedness by filing FIR against them”, PTI reported.

“The filing of the FIR clearly shows vendetta of Ghaziabad police to create a sense of state terror in the media and society at large,” the Press Club of India said in a statement.

The Mumbai Press Club criticised the Uttar Pradesh Police’s “strong-arm measures” against reporting the truth. “To whitewash the crime, charges have been brought against the media entities for promoting communal disharmony,” it said in a statement. “The police has also come to the specious conclusion that there was no evidence of communal hatred.”

The Mumbai Press Club also urged the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to “educate” the Uttar Pradesh government and Chief Minister Adityanath about the tenets of freedom of expression and the right to report incidents of news value.

“With the recent judgment of the Delhi High Court flagging the authoritarian tendency to equate peaceful dissent with ‘terrorism’, those running the government at Lucknow need to be suitably restrained,” the association said. It was referring to the High Court order granting bail to Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the Delhi riots cases in which the three activists have been charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The Indian Women’s Press Corps expressed “shock and disappointment” and said that the Ghaziabad Police spending time and resources to go after journalists seemed to be an attempt to muzzle the media and divert attention.

“The appalling incident was a crime against a senior citizen belonging to a minority community, and the assault seemed communal in nature,” the journalists’ body said. “We urge the UP Police to focus on investigating the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice. We demand that the FIR against journalists and news organisations be quashed.”

The incident

The incident first came to light after a video of the Muslim man, identified as Abdul Samad, being assaulted in Ghaziabad district’s Loni area went viral on social media on Sunday. Samad was allegedly beaten up and his beard was cut off. Initial reports said that he was also asked to chant “Jai Shri Ram”.

The police had arrested the main accused, Parvesh Gujjar, on Sunday. On Tuesday, the police arrested two others – Kallu Gujjar and Adil.

The police said that Gujjar and his associates assaulted Samad because he had allegedly sold them an amulet that had a “negative effect” on their families. The statement added that Samad was in the business of making and selling amulets and was an earlier acquaintance of Gujjar and others.

The police’s statement was markedly different from Samad’s account. He had claimed in a video that the accused forced him to chant Hindu deity Ram’s name, when he was “praying to Allah” while being beaten up. He also said that the accused told him that they had beaten up many Muslims and showed him videos of people from the community being beaten up.