Police are seen in Uttar Pradesh, India, on October 3, 2020. Uttar Pradesh police recently opened criminal investigations into The Wire and three journalists who shared a video online. (AFP/Pawan Sharma)

Indian police open criminal investigation into The Wire and 3 journalists

New Delhi, June 16, 2021 — Authorities in India’s Uttar Pradesh state must immediately drop their criminal investigation into journalists Rana Ayyub, Saba Naqvi, and Mohammed Zubair, and the independent news website The Wire, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, Uttar Pradesh police filed a criminal complaint stating that they were opening a investigation into The Wire as well as Ayyub, a Washington Post columnist; Naqvi, a freelance journalist; and Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, according to various news reports and a copy of the complaint, which CPJ reviewed.

The complaint alleges that the three journalists and the news outlet, as well as several politicians from the opposition Congress Party, shared an unverified video that could cause social unrest.

“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, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Uttar Pradesh police must withdraw their complaint immediately and stop harassing journalists and news outlets.”

On June 14, The Wire and many other leading news outlets reported on a widely shared video from Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district, which allegedly depicted a group of Hindu men beating an elderly Muslim man, cutting off his beard, and forcing him to chant a Hindu slogan. Ayyub, Naqvi, and Zubair tweeted about the video, according to those news reports and the complaint.

The complaint, filed by an inspector at the Loni Border police station in Ghaziabad, accuses Ayyub, Naqvi, and Zubair of posting tweets police alleged were misleading and unverified.

The complaint states that police are investigating the three journalists and The Wire for violating Sections 153 (provocation to cause a riot), 153A (promoting enmity between religious groups), 295A (insulting religious beliefs), 505 (public mischief), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian penal code.

Each of those sections carry prison penalties of up to one year for convictions, except for criminal conspiracy, which carries up to two years, according to the Indian penal code.

In posts on Twitter after the criminal complaint was filed, Ayyub, Naqvi, and Zubair noted that their descriptions of the video were based on initial news reports.

CPJ texted Uttar Pradesh Police Director-General Hitesh Awasthy for comment but did not receive any reply.

Last year, Uttar Pradesh police filed opened criminal investigations into The Wire’s Siddharth Vardarajan for allegedly “spreading discord” related to the COVID-19 lockdown, as CPJ documented at the time.