Authorities in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh must immediately drop their criminal investigations into journalists Nidhi Suresh, Manoj Shukla, and Yashwant Singh, and cease harassing members of the press over their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 4, police in the state’s Shahjahanpur district launched criminal defamation investigations into Suresh, a reporter at the news website Newslaundry, as well as Shukla, a reporter, and Singh, an editor, both at the news website Bhadas4Media, according to The Wire and Suresh, who spoke to CPJ over the phone.

The investigations stem from a criminal defamation complaint filed against the three journalists by Deep Srivastava, a reporter at the privately owned broadcaster News18, according to those sources and a copy of the criminal complaint, which CPJ reviewed. CPJ called and texted Srivastava for comment, but he did not respond.

If convicted, Suresh, Shukla, and Singh could face up to two years in prison and an unspecified fine under the Indian Penal Code.

“While criminal defamation codes should never be used against journalists, it is especially galling to see such laws wielded by fellow members of the press,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator in Washington, D.C. “Uttar Pradesh authorities should drop their investigations into journalists Nidhi Suresh, Manoj Shukla, and Yashwant Singh, and India should reform its defamation statutes so that disputes are handled by civil and not criminal law.”

In his criminal complaint, Srivastava alleged that Suresh falsely accused him on Twitter of extorting a woman, and that Shukla then repeated those accusations in reporting by Bhadas4Media.

Suresh told CPJ that her tweets were extracts from a report she published in Newslaundry quoting the alleged extortion victim and their lawyer.

Omkar Verma, the Shahjahanpur police officer leading the investigation, told CPJ over the phone that he would drop the investigation if Suresh could prove that her tweets were merely relaying statements from the alleged victim and their lawyer.

Suresh told CPJ yesterday that Shahjahanpur police had called her numerous times to request that she present herself for questioning, but she had not done so. Singh told CPJ over the phone yesterday that police had not contacted him or Shukla.

Suresh’s lawyer, Nipun Katyal, told CPJ over the phone that he believed the Shahjahanpur district police did not have the authority to launch the investigations in the first place, saying that 2016 and 2020 Supreme Court judgements ruled that such investigations require an order by a judicial magistrate.

Verma declined to answer when CPJ asked if his office had received an order from a magistrate, and said that the police station itself had initiated the investigation.

Last month alone, Uttar Pradesh police opened criminal investigations into journalists Rana Ayyub, Saba Naqvi, and Mohammed Zubair, and the news website The Wire, as CPJ documented at the time.