The head of India's Press Council told top security officials he would bring criminal charges against any police officers and paramilitary troops who attack journalists.
Markandey Katju's strong defense of media safety followed repeated assaults on reporters covering demonstrations in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Police in the tumultuous region wrote in an email to The Associated Press that the journalists' accusations were "baseless and concocted."
In a letter sent late Thursday to Kashmir's Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, Katju said journalists had a constitutional right to report without the threat of assault by state forces.
"I am not going to accept violence on journalists by the police or paramilitary forces .... A journalist while covering an incident is only doing his job. He is like a lawyer who defends his client," he wrote.
Security forces "must therefore be instructed not to commit any violence on media persons, otherwise they will face criminal proceedings, which the Press Council will launch against them," he wrote.
The council is a quasi-independent body set up by the government to hear complaints against the press and to defend media freedom. The Press Council has the powers of a civil court and can summon officials to appear before it, but it is not clear how it would be able to pursue criminal charges against security officials on its own.
Katju, a retired Supreme Court justice, also sent the letter to the top officials in every Indian state and territory as well as to India's home secretary.
In response, Abdullah said police in Kashmir did not intentionally target the media and called on the Press Council to help create a code of conduct for journalists covering rallies.
Katju's statement came less than a week after Associated Press cameraman Umar Meraj, and three others _ photographers Yawar Nazir, Showkat Shafi and Shahid Tantray _ said they were assaulted by security forces using rifle butts, batons, fists and a barrage of kicks while covering an anti-government demonstration in Kashmir.
Abdullah and other top Kashmiri officials have not responded to requests from the AP for a thorough investigation into the alleged assaults.
Local journalists have repeatedly complained of harassment and assaults by police in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both countries in its entirety. The Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir has been beset by often violent protests calling for independence or merger with Pakistan.
Meraj was assaulted by police at a checkpoint in its main city of Srinagar last year along with his father, also an AP journalist. In August, two photographers said police beat and detained them while they were covering a street protest. Reporters Without Borders accused paramilitary forces of beating up 12 journalists covering a demonstration last year.