Sandwiched between police high-handedness and abject working conditions, journalists in Chhattisgarh are finding it increasingly hard to work; Ramesh Sharma reports from Chhattisgarh
As if working in an area scattered with pressure bombs and landmines was not enough, journalists in Chhattisgarh now have to work with Damocles’ Sword hanging over their heads. The problem with over 300 journalists reporting from Naxal affected areas in Chhattisgarh is that they have to face the dual-tagging of being a Naxal as well as a police sympathiser. There’s nothing in the between. And since the pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, it is only natural that those wielding the pen are the new target of the high and mighty. The arrest of journalists Prabhat Singh, Deepak Jaiswal, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag has rattled the power corridors from Raipur to Delhi. There are continued protests at Jantar Mantar, apart from equally vociferous ones in the assembly. Congress leaders Satyanarayan Sharma and Mohan Markam allege that those appointed to maintain law and order are actually violating it. On the other hand, the ruling party holds the action legitimate. Home Minister incharge, Ajay Chandrakar says that police has been following the norms while taking action and there is nothing amiss there. The State government has sent as many as six journalists behind bars on separate charges. Congress leader and in-charge of media, Shailesh Nitin Trivedi says, “Journalists are being harassed deliberately. Those journalists who are calling out the loot of mineral wealth are being especially targeted. There are 40,000 CRPF soldiers in Bastar, but IG Kalluri is giving an impression that it is only him who is fighting against Naxals here. Social workers are being harassed and bogus cases are being filed against them. People left, right and centre are being branded as Naxal sympathisers. We cannot leave the people reeling between police and Naxals.” Congress Spokesperson, Sushil Anand Shukla says that particularly the arrest of local journalist Prabhat Singh is indicative that anyone who protests the highhandedness of police will be targeted. Senior journalists like Somaru Nag, Santosh Yadav, Malini Subramaniam and Alok Putul have also been reportedly harassed and abused incessantly. Even Congress leaders who were protesting against a Central Minister were targeted with bogus charges. The case of journalist Deepak Jaiswal is a tad complex. The State insists that he was arrested in connection with an old case. The police insists that Deepak is not a bonafide journalist. However, media watchdogs and journalist organisations maintain that he is an active journalist working for a local newspaper Dainandani. In Dantewada too, journalist Prabhat Singh was sent to custody under the IT Act. In Bijapur, journalist Kamlesh Paikra was arrested on charges of abetting the Naxals. Prabhat’s advocate, Mahendra Dubey, insists that in the light of the written complaint and FIR against Prabhat by a school management where he was said to have grossly misbehaved, it is evident that there is no scope for the charges to be framed under Article 67, 67A of IT Act or Article 292 of IPC. This, according to him, raises questions on the motive of the police. Chief Minister Raman Singh formed a committee in order to look into the issues related to journalists. It was said that the committee will take appropriate action within 72 hours of the arrest of a journalist, in the light of the evidence presented to them. Singh assured the journalist community in the state that the government is aware of their problems. Looking into the merit of cases against journalists, it is evident that a large section of them have problems with IG Kalluri and his highhandedness, although Kalluri, to his credit, has the tough task of taking on the Naxals in the area. However, in spite of continuous complaints against IG Kalluri, he has the full support of the government. It is said that he has been successful in undermining the Naxal movement at the very cadre level. But the list of allegations against him is equally long. Activist Soni Sori insists that the people who threw acid on her face were linked with IG Kalluri. Swami Agnivesh has also gone on record to say that in the guise of fighting Naxalism, IG Kalluri has created an environment of fear and repression in the state. Naxals have appealed to the journalists to expose Kalluri’s tactics. But Kalluri has his own definition of who is a journalist. He says, “The nationalist and patriotic section of media-persons are my diehard supporters. For me, only that person is a journalist who comes to my press conference, who I know and interact with daily. If any Tom Dick or Harry calls and asks for an interview, why should I oblige him?” On the other hand, setting aside the definition set by Kalluri, the Press Council has taken suo moto action and has asked Principal Secretary, Home Secretary and DGP to reply to their notice within a fortnight. A fact finding team from the Editors’ Guild of India comprising Prakash Dubey, Seema Chishti, and Vinod Verma toured the state and found merit in the allegations by the journalists. In a meeting with the team, Chief Minister Raman Singh insisted that his government is an advocate of independent and unbiased media. According to the report by the fact finding team, the media in Chhattisgarh is working under extreme pressure. In Jagdalpur and other far-flung areas, reporting has become very difficult as the administration, especially the police, exerts undue pressure on journalists. The team recorded the statements of Malini Subramaniam and Alok Putul, who mentioned an anecdote that when Putul was doing a story on the conditions prevailing in the area, he was summarily dismissed by IG Kalluri and his aides. The team later met with one of the jailed scribes, Santosh Yadav too. There is pressure from other quarters as well. It is a common understanding that every single journalist is being closely monitored by the State – they are being spied upon, and in some cases, to the extent of phone taps. As far as working conditions are concerned, a case in point was the reporting done during the operation to release Sukma’s District Magistrate from Naxals. While some over enthusiastic journalists were threatened with their lives by Naxals, a few reporters who rubbed some female Naxals the wrong way were thrashed. Journalists who were accustomed to a certain lifestyle, found it very hard to survive in such a locality where neither drinking water nor food was available in time. Both the police and Naxals operated in such terrains. Maoists have started to attack journalists too. In 2013, Nemichand Jain was first arrested by police on the suspicion of being a Maoist. He was later gunned down by Maoists on suspicion of being a police informer. Sai Reddy was also gunned down by Maoists. There are other problems as well. Anil Pusadkar, president of Raipur Press Club, insists that the attacks on journalists have increased. They are under pressure both by criminals and the State. Although they work on meagre salaries, once they get into any problem, the media houses drop them like hot potatoes. It’s been five years since the then secretary of the Press Club, Sushil Pathak, was killed. However, CBI has failed to apprehend anyone. Similarly, Umesh Rajput’s murderers have gone unpunished. In both these cases, their organisations abandoned them. This raises questions on the way journalists are being treated. The victim, at the end, is journalism.
The complaints by journalists seem to be mounting of late… Chhattisgarh has a proud history of constructive journalism. This land has lent succour to journalism and literature. The state government is committed towards independent journalism in accordance with the democratic norms of the state. The officers in Bastar have been told to do their work keeping journalists in confidence.
What steps are being taken for the benefit of journalism in the state? I have directed the officers fighting Naxal menace in the affected areas to assure that journalists don’t face any pressure or harassment while reporting from the zone. They have also been asked to insure that those journalists who report about developmental works being undertaken are provided with all the help.
But what about security? Will the state provide security to journalists? The journalists will be protected under relevant law in their line of duty. A set guideline has been issued by the Home Ministry to the police department which will assure that the healthy tradition of independent journalism will continue in the state without any hiccups.