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Silencing act

Print edition : Jan 30, 2009 T+T-
B.V. Seetaram, Editor of "Karavali Ale".-

B.V. Seetaram, Editor of "Karavali Ale".-

IN an interview with Frontline on the morning of January 4, B.V. Seetaram, the 54-year-old director of Chitra Publications, which publishes the midday Kannada newspaper Karavali Ale (The Coastal Wave), expressed an uneasy foreboding that he would be arrested. The district administration has not responded to my calls for protecting Karavali Ale and is, instead, looking for an excuse to target me, he remarked. That evening, Seetaram was detained by the Udupi police near the small town of Karkala in Udupi district in southwestern Karnataka. Seetaram and his wife Rohini were served a warrant in a two-year-old defamation case.

According to sources close to Seetaram, 25 policemen surrounded his house in Mangalore when he was on his way to Karkala. He was served the warrant while he was en route, and he was produced before the local Magistrate the next day. He was charged under Sections 500 and 501 of the Indian Penal Code (defamation) at the court of the Civil Judge (Junior Division) and Judicial Magistrate, First Class, in Udupi and remanded in judicial custody until January 17, after he refused bail apprehending a threat to his life if he was arrested by the Mangalore police.

Karavali Ale, founded in 1991 by Seetaram and his wife, is a six-page Kannada broadsheet published from Mangalore and Karwar. The duo also heads three other publications in the region an English weekly called Canara Times and two Kannada dailies Sanje Ale and Kannada Janantaranga. Karavali Ale, priced at Rs.3 and with estimated sales of more than 50,000 copies, was the leading midday newspaper in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada before December 2008 when a series of attacks on its distribution network dented its circulation.

Delivery vans carrying copies of the newspaper were reportedly stopped and attempts were made to burn the copies. On December 11, 2008, miscreants burnt 5,000 copies of the newspaper. News agents and hawkers were intimidated by men belonging to right-wing groups. According to Seetaram, the circulation of Karavali Ale declined by almost 20 per cent, and advertisers were very reluctant to advertise in the newspaper. I lost at least Rs.5 lakh in December, he said.

The immediate provocation for the attacks was a report in the newspaper on December 1. A Dalit organisation called Dalit Sangharsha Samiti had issued a press statement in which it criticised Rajashekhara Nanda Swami of the Gurupura Vajradehi Matha. The statement, which was carried in Karavali Ale, alleged that the Swami behaved in a discriminatory manner with the Dalit residents of the area when he went to attend on November 30 an event that discouraged conversion to Buddhism. Earlier, on November 17, there was an attack on the printing press of the newspaper after it carried a report that cast doubts on the method of acquisition of land for the Mangalore Special Economic Zone (MSEZ) in Kudubipadavu village in Dakshina Kannada district.

The Inspector-General of Police, Western Range, A.M. Prasad, however, denied that the police were partial. Police protection has always been there for Mr. Seetaram. Even when his premises were attacked on November 17, a constable who was guarding the place sustained injuries but chased the culprits, Prasad said. He added that several first information reports (FIRs) had been filed against Seetaram, who in turn filed FIRs against several people. Around 15 people have been arrested on the basis of Mr. Seetarams FIRs, but it will take some time to investigate the whole issue, he said.

State Home Minister Dr. V.S. Acharya denied that Karavali Ale and its editors were being targeted. He said that Seetarams allegations against the district and State administration were baseless.

The convener of the Bajrang Dal in Dakshina Kannada district, Vinay Shetty, said the newspaper was targeted by the public because it had been publishing articles against prominent Hindu religious leaders as well as Christians and Muslims for the past four to five years. He termed the attacks against the distribution network of the newspaper a public revolt. Members of the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagran Vedike and followers of Gurupura Swami oppose the editorial policy of the newspaper, he said. He added: The circulation of the newspaper fell by more than 50 per cent in December. If Seetarams allegations are correct, why havent any of the other local newspaper establishments stood by him?

This is not the first time that the newspaper has ruffled feathers. In several of its reports, there is only a thin line between evidence-based journalistic critique and rhetoric that can be interpreted as being defamatory. Its style is a no-holds-barred kind, and it does not hesitate to make personal attacks. But it is still a fairly respected newspaper for the bold stands it takes.

It is a very people-centric newspaper and it is bravely waging a battle against the communal forces of the Sangh Parivar. It also doesnt shy away from writing about fundamentalist elements in Islamic and Christian faiths in the region, a local journalist said. Its reportage of issues pertaining to the MSEZ and its steady attack on the Bajrang Dal for its alleged role in the church attacks in September 2008 were well received.

The real estate mafia in the region also came under Karavali Ales scanner. It criticised atrocities of large builders while questioning the indiscriminate development being encouraged by the Urban Development Authority in Mangalore. Another powerful group that the newspaper has taken on was the private transport lobby. According to Seetaram, a third group that the paper has offended is the religious mafia, many of whom he described as fake priests. In the original story that the newspaper carried on Rajashekhara Nanda Swami in February 2008, it accused him of being involved in child trafficking.

This is also not the first time that Seetaram has been arrested. Earlier, in March 2007, he was detained for 10 days on the charge that his articles promoted religious hatred. His comment piece, which caused a great deal of furore, had said that Jain monks practice of parading naked in Mangalore city was an affront to the norms of modesty.

Members of the Left parties, the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), trade unions and womens groups have been supporting Seetaram for the past couple of years against attacks from the Sangh Parivar. V.J.K. Nair, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: This particular paper endorses secularism, and the democratic movement must take up this issue, especially in Dakshina Kannada district. The irony here is that the very groups who espoused values of press freedom and were jailed during the Emergency are now denying this papers freedom.

The coastal areas of Karnataka have for long been touted as the laboratory of Hindutva in the State. Several communal incidents have occurred in the region in the past several years, the most serious of them being the communal riot in Suratkal in December 1998 in which at least 10 lives were lost. Again, in 2006, when the Janata Dal (Secular)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government was in power, communal violence flared up in Mangalore over the transportation of cows for slaughter.

Changing socio-economic dynamics, with local Muslims benefiting greatly from the post-1970 Gulf boom, have caused disruption in the traditional class structures. The changes in the political economy of the region have also made coastal Karnatakas soil suitable for the growth of religious identities. Using these cleavages, the Sangh Parivar has managed to increase its presence and is now a strong force in the region. Bandhs called in the area even by relatively new right-wing groups such as the Sri Rame Sene are total.

The attacks on Karavali Ale abated after January 1 when the State government received a stern letter from Justice G.N. Ray, Chairman of the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body. Justice Ray directed the Chief Minister to look into the complaints and take firm steps. Pressure was also brought on the establishment through the Indian Newspaper Society, the Editors Guild of India, and Transparency International.

Retired Justice M.F. Saldanha, who heads the Karnataka Chapter of Transparency International, personally appraised the situation and wrote in great anguish to the Chairman of the Press Council: What is most dangerous and virtually fatal to the rule of law is the total breakdown of constitutional machinery in the district [Dakshina Kannada]. The local mafia is running wild and the media is terrified to report their atrocities. The one newspaper that is bold enough to report the facts is being targeted.

R.V. Deshpande, president, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), and H.D. Deve Gowda, national president of the JD(S), have condemned Seetarams arrest.

Seetarams arrest and related events show that freedom of the press in the country is still subject to the whims of certain groups.