Kamal Shukla, editor of the weekly newspaper Bhumkal Samachar, apologised for being a few hours late and said: “ Bas jaan bachake aa raha hun” (I just escaped with my life). En route to Raipur from Dantewada, he was informed by “well-wishers” that some people planned to gherao him in Jagdalpur and was advised to either change cars or change the route.
Anywhere else, this kind of threat might sound fanciful but not in undivided Bastar, a conflict zone where it is routine. The ability to deal with intimidation tactics and live under constant vigil seems to be a prerequisite for journalists to work here. “There are guns on the ready on both sides, and journalists who stand in the middle are in the direct line of fire,” said Shukla. The intimidation tactics of the state, however, far surpassed those of the Maoists, said a local journalist. Shukla, who is also the general secretary of the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukta Sangharsh Samiti (Joint Committee to Struggle and Demand Law for Protection of Journalists), for instance, has been tailed, and threatened by senior police officers with jail on charges of being a naxal conduit, and has had his phone tapped. He has not been able to publish his newspaper for months.
In the past eight months, four journalists have been arrested, two killed in cold blood, and several framed in false cases. Many families have been harassed. Several journalists have been forced to leave the region and scores have been driven out of the profession itself by the high risk factor.
The latest in a series of incidents involving journalists is the arrest of 31-year-old Prabhat Singh on March 22 in Dantewada under Sections 67, 67(A) and 292 of the Information Technology Act for allegedly “posting an obscene and objectionable message” on the WhatsApp group “Bastar News”. Three other cases from the past were dug up and he was booked for those too. One pertained to the alleged extortion of Rs.20 from villagers for making Aadhaar cards. Another was based on a complaint filed by the principal of a school in Geedam that Prabhat Singh was investigating for allegedly allowing large-scale cheating in examinations.
Colleagues in the field, however, say that Prabhat Singh is being victimised for asking Inspector General S.R.P. Kalluri uncomfortable questions at a press meet about an encounter killing in Modenar. Kalluri had reportedly said then: “ Tumhari kundali mere paas hai, sudhar jao [Your horoscope is with me, you better mend your ways].” Subsequently, the Patrika newspaper carried a full page report on its front page challenging the police version of the events in Modenar. Prabhat Singh was picked up by policemen in plainclothes and illegally detained overnight at Parpa police station, where he was allegedly physically and verbally abused. A few days later, a co-accused in the Geedam school case, Deepak Jaiswal, a reporter with Dainik Daindini , was also arrested outside the court premises while he was waiting with his lawyer to file for anticipatory bail. Both their bail pleas were rejected and they were sent to judicial custody.
Journalists in Chhattisgarh are extremely vulnerable since most of them are stringers working in a conflict zone. It is a common practice to hire journalists for paltry salaries on monthly contracts, and they do not enjoy benefits like Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) or Provident Fund. Reporters are used as messengers, and news organisations often disown them at the slightest hint of liability. Since their salaries are low, they are often forced to undertake other jobs for sustenance, such as working as an Aadhaar officer, a shopkeeper, or a contractor for the State administration. There have been instances of journalists accepting money and other incentives for suppressing news. Those who are honest and independent find themselves targeted by both state and non-state players.
Last year, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag were accused of being Maoist sympathisers and arrested under the draconian Special Public Security Act, 2005, in separate cases. A stringer with Dainik Navbharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh , Santosh Yadav supplemented his meagre monthly income by running a photocopy shop. Being the first reporter on the scene of a crime might be a feather in the cap of journalists elsewhere, but not in Chhattisgarh. As a resident of Darbha, he was the first reporter to reach the valley where Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma was killed in a bloody ambush by the Maoists in 2013. Ever since, he has been harassed by policemen to turn informer, according to a representation made to the National Human Rights Commission by the human rights organisation Alert India.
It is not unusual for the police to involve journalists in anti-naxalite operations. For example, before entering a village, they would ask a reporter to go and check if any naxalites were present. If a jawan is killed, a reporter is asked to bring the body from the village in his car. This exposes the reporter to extreme danger from the Maoists, who have killed journalists in the past, accusing them of being police informers. Santosh Yadav refused to get involved in these ways. For two years, he was harassed, kept in custody for days and even stripped naked and beaten. When Santosh told a police officer that he would expose the fake surrenders arranged by them in a nearby village, it was the last straw. Within minutes of making that statement, he was picked up by the police and three days later, Kalluri gave a press statement saying that Santosh was a hard-core naxalite. Subsequently, his name was added to a list of 18 unknown persons accused in an old case where a special police officer was killed.
Somaru Nag, a stringer-cum-newspaper agent for Rajasthan Patrika , was similarly charged with acting as a lookout while a group burnt a crusher plant in Chote Kadma. Villagers often approached him for help and he would comply, but the police warned him to not do so. Then there is Rajesh Sahu, against whom four cases have been registered. He used to actively investigate and report on corruption cases in the State. Manish Soni used to be a Zee News stringer, but the moment Zee News removed him, a complaint was filed against him for the reporting he had done for the channel, said Kamal Shukla.
For the media in Bastar, 2013 may have been the worst year, when Nemichand Jain and Sai Reddy, both veterans with 20 years’ experience, were killed by the Maoists. Jain was 43 and freelanced for the Hindi dailies Hari Bhoomi , Nayi Duniya and Dainik Bhaskar . He was accused of being a police informer. His colleagues deny the accusation. According to a statement on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ website, Jain’s social activism may have led to his murder. “A week before his death, Jain had been instrumental in helping free an individual allegedly held by Maoists,” it said. Sai Reddy was 51 when he was killed. He was declared a naxal sympathiser under the Special Public Security Act of Chhattisgarh. When he came out of jail, he was killed by the Maoists. His colleagues remember him as an independent reporter, critical of all sides.
Under Kamal Shukla’s leadership, journalists gathered at the spot where Sai Reddy was killed and protested against naxalites targeting journalists. After a few days, the naxalites apologised in a parcha (handbill) and since then no journalist has been killed, said Tameshwar Sinha. Such violent tactics, used by both the state and the Maoists, discouraged young reporters from getting out and reporting from the field and most of them have been reduced to copy-pasting press releases, he said. “When any journalist writes about any of Bastar’s problems, say, the issue of roads not being built, then both the types of government—the state and the self-declared Janatana Sarkar—get angry. Both are one and the same, united in corruption, and create trouble for journalists who attempt to show the truth of the matter,” said Kamal Shukla.
Early this year, Malini Subramaniam, who works for Scroll.in, was attacked and hounded out of Jagdalpur by the Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM), a civil vigilante group, widely believed to be another avatar of Salwa Judum. The subsequent police inaction, the intimidation of her domestic help and the pressure on her landlord to evict her forced her to leave Jagdalpur for good. She wrote widely about Adivasi issues, exposing human rights violations by the security forces, and hence was disliked by the police, who branded her a Maoist sympathiser. The BBC’s Hindi correspondent Alok Putul, too, was asked to leave the region or face the music.
In March, a fact-finding team of the Editor’s Guild of India visited Chhattisgarh and declared that journalists in the State worked under tremendous pressure. They met the Chief Minister, journalists, police officers, bureaucrats, and members of the SEM and concluded that “there is pressure from the State administration, especially the police, on journalists to write what they want or not to publish reports that the administration sees as hostile. There is pressure from the Maoists as well on the journalists working in the area. There is a general perception that every single journalist is under the government scanner and all their activities are under surveillance. They hesitate to discuss anything over the phone because, as they say, ‘the police is listening to every word we speak.’” They tried to meet Kalluri, but he refused to meet the team.
The administration categorically denies charges of phone tapping, and Principal Secretary (Home) B.V.R. Subramanian told the fact-finding team: “I sanction every single request for surveillance and I can say this with authority that no government department has been authorised to tap phone calls of any of the journalists.”
The Collector of Bastar, Amit Kataria, told Frontline that phones were tapped and call data records (CDR) accessed by the state to track location only if the reporters were suspected to be Maoist sympathisers. The CDRs were useful in tracking reporters’ movements as they helped in finding out who the reporters were speaking to, when their phones were switched off, and where they were switched on again, explained Kataria. “In order for someone to be under surveillance or their phones to be tapped, permission has to be obtained from the State’s Home Ministry. Location can be traced from the CDR, which is shared by the phone company once the police show incidence of a serious crime. An FIR [first information report] is required. But nowadays software is available online to track phones. Technology is used very effectively by the I.T. wing of the police for crime detection,” he said. He conceded that the arrests of Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal were on flimsy charges and could have been avoided. “These arrests have created a perception that the media are strangulated in Bastar, but that is not the case. We will be careful now and we assure you nothing like this will happen again. But in the case of Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, we are sure they were involved with the Maoists and have witness testimonies and phone records as proof,” he said.
Meanwhile, after Santosh Yadav’s arrest, journalists, coming together under the Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukta Sangharsh Samiti, demanded the enactment of a law to protect journalists and their freedom to work without pressure. The Chief Minister met the journalists and promised to enact a law, but since it needed to be passed by the State Assembly and would take some time, he suggested forming a committee to look into their issues. Hence, a high-level committee consisting of Rajesh Sukumar Toppo, Director, Chhattisgarh Public Relations Department; Vikas Sheel, Administration Department Secretary; Arundav Gautam, Secretary, Home Department; Rajeev Srivastava, Additional Director General, CID; and senior journalists Ruchir Garg and Manikuntala Bose was formed in March.
As the state-Maoist conflict escalated over five decades in Bastar, telling the truth became a casualty. The past year saw independent observers being either silenced or hounded out of the region. For those who remained behind, neutrality was a curtailed option. With the state and the police harassing journalists equally, a question that begs an answer is, Why does the state want to remove authentic eyewitnesses from the region? What is it afraid of?