While no arrests have been made, media watchdogs say the act may have a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists doing their job.

Members of the media protest after the Indian police raided the New Delhi office of a news portal and the homes of journalists and writers linked to it on Tuesday, at Press Club in New Delhi, India, October 4, 2023
Members of the media protest at the Press Club of India in New Delhi [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Media watchdogs in India have accused the police in Uttar Pradesh state of “grave overreach” for filing cases against journalists after they wrote about the alleged lynching of a Muslim man last week in social media posts.

Police in the northern state’s Shamli district charged two journalists – Wasim Akram Tyagi and his cousin Zakir Ali Tyagi – for commenting on the killing of Firoz Qureshi in the district’s Jalalabad town.

The journalists were charged with causing “hatred and anger” in society. Three other Muslims who shared their social media posts were also named in the first information report (FIR) filed by the police. None of them have been arrested so far.

Wasim, a reporter with Hind News newspaper in Dehli, told Al Jazeera on Thursday he was “shocked” when he heard that charges had been filed against him over the alleged lynching.

“Now, as journalists, if we can’t call murder a murder, what should we call it, then? If a journalist is not going to raise questions, who will? … If we are going to be charged for this, it raises questions on press freedom,” the 36-year-old told Al Jazeera.

“The impact this will have is that anytime you write something, you will have to think twice: What if an FIR is filed over writing this or that?”

Zakir, 25, also rejected the police charges, saying he merely disseminated information that had already been shared by the Qureshi family. He said he was “not surprised” by the FIR against him.

“I was expecting the FIR for a long time because I had been only posting and writing about lynching cases recorded across India,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that this was not the first time a police case was registered against him.

Cases of mob lynching of Muslims by Hindu groups and mobs, mainly under the pretext of protecting cows, an animal considered holy by a large section of Hindus, spiked after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Dozens have been killed in such attacks.

Zakir said the people charged by the police in the Shamli case, including him, were being targeted because they were Muslims.

“Everything we wrote, all the questions we have raised, were also written or used in videos by Hindu journalists,” he told Al Jazeera. “But no FIR was registered against them.”

Al Jazeera reached out to police officials in Shamli but received no response.

Meanwhile, the police also filed an FIR against several persons allegedly involved in Qureshi’s killing after his family filed a complaint against the suspects. It is not yet clear if any arrests were made.

But the police claim Qureshi’s death was not a case of mob lynching. “The man was beaten up by a few men when he entered their home. But he died at his [own] home. We have also conducted a postmortem,” a senior police officer in Shamli told India’s Scroll website.

However, Qureshi’s brother Mohammed Afzal insisted it was a case of lynching. He told The Quint website there were injuries all over the deceased’s body, including on his stomach and back, suggesting he was assaulted with an intent to kill.

Journalist Wasim also questioned the police version.

“While the police say this was not a case of lynching, the family says Qureshi was beaten up. There is a recorded video of them saying that. And it was on that basis that we raised questions regarding the police’s conduct towards the death,” he said.

‘Crime to report a crime’

India’s press bodies, including the Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps and Digipub News India Foundation, a group of digital-only news outlets, condemned the police action against the journalists, saying they were “extremely perturbed” by the charges levelled against the journalists and demanding that the FIRs be immediately withdrawn.

“Registering an FIR against journalists sharing information in the public interest is a grave overreach and misuse of criminal laws and an assault on press freedom that has a chilling effect,” Digipub said in a post on X.

“While the police has contested the nature of the incident, saying it wasn’t communal in nature, there was no cause for filling cases against journalists who were putting out information made available to them.”

Kunal Majumder, who represents the Committee to Protect Journalists in India, said the investigations against Zakir and Wasim Akram for highlighting “police misconduct and sectarian tensions” were alarming.

“The authorities should drop this investigation and focus on addressing the issues raised by these journalists rather than punishing them for their work,” he said in a statement.

Journalist and author Ziya Us Salam told Al Jazeera that the police filing cases against journalists was meant to “simply intimidate” them.

“On one hand, the mainstream media turns a blind eye to lynching instances. On the other, when independent media covers such attacks, the administration tries to muzzle it through such actions,” said Salam, whose 2023 book, Being Muslim in Hindu India, argues that the minority community is “under siege” in a BJP-ruled India.

“It seems it’s a crime in Modi’s India to report a crime,” he said, adding that “one has to fight on” since being silent was “not an option”.

Multiple journalists have complained of harassment in recent years, with rights groups and media watchdogs accusing the Modi-led government of cracking down on the press critical of its affairs.

In October, NewsClick website’s founder and editor Prabir Purkayastha was arrested, after a New York Times report alleged his portal was supported financially by a Chinese-based network. India’s Supreme Court in May ordered Purkayastha’s release on bail, calling his arrest “illegal”.

Indian tax authorities also raided the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai in 2022, shortly after the British broadcaster released a documentary critical of Modi.

India is ranked 159 out of 180 countries in the 2024 World Press Freedom Index, released by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).