Biju Janata Dal's Chandrani Murmu, youngest MP in India, alleges harassment by a media house in Odisha and seeks justice

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Chandrani Murmu of the BJD after winning the Keonjhar Lok Sabha constituency, in May 2019. Photo: PTI

A morphed video of a woman tribal politician that was circulated on social media before the general election of 2019 is at the centre of a raging controversy in Odisha. The video was allegedly released by a mediaperson from Odisha Television (OTV), a channel owned by Jagi Panda and Jay Panda, who defected from the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a few years ago.

The latest controversy erupted on October 15, when the Keonjhar district police allegedly detained and questioned Ramesh Rath, (a senior reporter of OTV) and seized his mobile phones in connection with the circulation of morphed video of Chandrani Murmu, the country’s youngest Member of Parliament from Keonjhar district. The video was circulated on social media when she was the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) nominee for the Keonjhar Lok Sabha seat. She won the reserved constituency by defeating two-time BJP MP Ananta Nayak.

On October 16, Chandrani Murmu released a video in which she justified the police action against the journalist.

The police had arrested three persons, including Simanchal Patra, in the case. Patra was working with Ramesh Rath in OTV when the incident occurred.

Police sources said that during investigation, Patra stated that it was under instructions from his then boss, Ramesh Rath, that he circulated the obscene video. He gave the police the I.P. address of the computer in which it was created and the phone from which it was circulated. Both were in Rath’s possession, the police sources said.

The police went to Rath and seized his mobile phones and took him to the OTV office to seize the computer under due process of law. At the OTV office, the police were prevented from entering the channel’s office and made to wait outside for four hours after which the police returned. The police said the OTV staff were uncooperative and prevented lawful discharge of their duty by the police.

Murmu also came out with a written statement accusing the reporter of having had a role in the circulation of her morphed picture in the run-up to 2019 general election. “I am an unmarried tribal lady and the youngest MP in India who has been mentally harassed and tortured by OTV reporters and others who viraled a morphed, obscene video of mine, with the malicious intent to defame, harass and mentally torture me,” she said.

“After this tragic incident, the police during investigation arrested a junior reporter of OTV [Simanchal Patra] along with others. The OTV junior reporter named Ramesh Rath as the perpetrator of the crime. But when the police questioned the perpetrator of the crime OTV reporter Ramesh Rath yesterday [October 15], OTV and their owners Jagi Panda and Jay Panda are trying to save him by claiming that this is an attack on OTV and its journalists by the government,” said Murmu in the statement.

“Both Jagi Panda and Jay Panda are friends with powerful people in Delhi and are using their connections to run media stories that Ramesh Rath being questioned by police is an attack on media and journalism. I want to ask the national media, if your daughter’s or sister’s morphed obscene video was made to go viral by a journalist, would you have pardoned that journalist just because he was a journalist? Has immunity from police action been provided to journalists in India who commit a crime?

“As a tribal lady, my honour and dignity were defamed in public. When will I get justice? If today, the youngest MP of India, who is also a tribal lady, is crying before the public to get justice because a channel like OTV is using its media connections to divert my story, you can then well imagine the fate of women in India today,” said Murmu.

Meanwhile, OTV issued a press release on October 16 stating that the channel was being harassed over the last three months, ever since the channel broke the story of the Odisha government misusing COVID funds. “Multiple FIRs have been filed against OTV with respect of the land case in Sarua (Khordha district). The allegations that OTV encroached someone’s land were found false and yet they went ahead and destroyed the boundary wall, which was totally illegal.

“Baseless allegations and FIRs are being filed. The senior journalist was picked up without notice or warrant. We have been cooperative towards investigation but if they are going to attack our journalists and our office without any reason, we should not be taken advantage of. We refused to let them search or ransack our office without any grounds,” said the statement issued by OTV’s Operating Officer Litisha Mangat.

In fact, the animosity between the State government and OTV goes beyond the viral video case. “OTV was with the BJD as long as Jay Panda was in BJD, but it suddenly became anti-BJD and pro-BJP after Panda joined the saffron party and became its national vice president,” said Rabi Das, veteran journalist and political analyst.

The Editors Guild of India said in a statement that such police action threatened the independent functioning of media organisations. “OTV has stated that the journalist has been targeted for having done a series of reports exposing the Biju Janata Dal government in Odisha although the State police denied allegations, saying that no arrest has yet been made,” said the Guild.

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