Blaming the victims?

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

A fact-finding committee appointed by the Press Council of India blames journalists as well as the police for the August 12 violence in Chennai and suggests measures to prevent such incidents.

THE police action on mediapersons covering a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) rally in Chennai on August 12 had raised concern about the threat to the freedom of the media. Thirteen journalists, including women, were injured in the attack, which was particularly directed at representatives of the visual media (Frontline, July 20, 2001). Mediapersons complained that the police resorted to a brutal lathicharge and that some of them were singled out for attack. A fact-finding committee constituted by the Press Council of India (PCI) has concluded that their allegations are not without substance. The report reveals that the police establishment has itself admitted that its personnel could have been guilty of unwarranted attacks on journalists.

The five-member team comprised Hari Jaisingh (convener), Editor of the Tribune group of publications, Pratap Bhai T. Shah, a journalist with Sourashtra Samachar, Indrajit Mohanty, who represents the Bar Council of India on the PCI, Vijay Darda, an independent member of the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra, and R. Venkataraman, legal correspondent of The Telegraph.

According to the report, Chennai Police Commissioner K. Muthukarup-pan (who was transferred to the post of Inspector-General, Armed Police, Tiruchi, on December 9) expressed regrets over the "police lathicharge" on journalists and stated that "ill-training" of "young chaps" joining the force, the practice of recruiting "any able-bodied young man" and "low tolerance level" often resulted in "these boys turning criminals in uniform". He reiterated before the fact-finding team his promise that a free and fair inquiry would be conducted by the Joint Commissioner of Police, North Zone, and that an identification parade could be arranged so that mediapersons could identify the police personnel responsible for the alleged attack. Muthukaruppan made no attempt to deny the involvement of the police in the incident. He expressed surprise over the attack and said that "but for that one incident, the entire force would have come out with flying colours".

The committee concluded that "there was a calculated attempt by the police to prevent reporting of the incidents which might be inconvenient to it or to the powers-that-be". Its conclusion is based on its inference about the "intention of the police". The intention, according to the committee, appears to have been to prevent the broadcast or telecast of any photo/video evidence of a severe lathicharge and other methods adopted by the police on the rallyists. The intention, the reports says, stemmed from the fact that the images of the arrest of DMK president M. Karunanidhi on July 1 that were repeatedly telecast by satellite television channels had attracted wide attention, showing the powers-that-be in bad light. The committee has not provided any additional evidence in support of its finding that there was a calculated attempt by the police to prevent the reporting of the incidents in Chennai on August 12.

The committee, which was in Chennai for three days from August 31, interviewed the Chief Minister, the affected journalists and police officials. On the basis of evidence submitted before it, the committee found that a mob from Ayodhya Kuppam, a slum near the DMK meeting venue on the Marina, attacked the police, who were to resort to a lathicharge. However, it said, this could not justify the attack by the police on journalists.

An eight-member fact-finding committee constituted by the Madras Union of Journalists, the Madras Reporters' Guild and the Chennai Press Club had concluded that the attack was a well-planned one and that it had the sanction of senior police officers. It had alleged that the unprovoked attacks on journalists who carried still and video cameras were aimed at destroying all evidence of the complicity of the police in the attack on the rallyists by goondas. Expensive camera equipment were damaged by policemen even as senior police officers looked on, its report said.

Following the August 12 incident, the Tamil Nadu government appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Justice K. Baktavatcha-lam to probe the allegations against the police. The commission was also asked to formulate norms and guidelines for mediapersons, inclu-ding the distance they would have to maintain while covering political rallies. Journalists' organisations protested against this part of the terms of reference of the commission on the grounds that it would infringe their freedom.

The mediapersons may not be entirely happy with the PCI committee's report, which has observed that the media may itself be somewhat responsible for the contempt with which it is being treated. It says: "Over-hyping and pandering of politicians in the media gives them a larger-than-life image, which they do not deserve. This gives the ruling class a sense of arrogance and the feeling that they are above the law and can get away with anything. Even among the journalists, somehow a feeling persists that they are above the law as they are not accountable to anybody. This is undesirable and hence deplorable."

The PCI committee has suggested the formation of a coordinating body consisting of police and State or district administration officials and mediapersons, which could sort out issues well in advance before any procession or other major event. It has also recommended that mediapersons wear some form of identification marks such as bands while covering protest rallies, riots, and so on. Such measures, it is feared, may be misused by the authorities.

It is desirable, the report says, that journalists are not biased. They should be balanced in their approach and keep themselves above the pulls and counterpulls of political groups and parties, it says. According to the committee, a sizable section of the media in Tamil Nadu was sharply divided on party lines and it is natural that "neutral persons" will bear the brunt of this atmosphere of animosity.

The committee has recommended payment of compensation to all journalists who were injured and who lost equipment used for news coverage. It has advised the managements of media organisations to take comprehensive risk insurance policies for the journalists employed by them. It has stressed the need to train policemen properly in handling the media. The authorities, it says, should accept and facilitate the media's right to inform people freely and fearlessly.

Press freedom, it says, should not be treated in isolation as a police-versus-press affair. The Chennai incidents should provoke the nation to set up a system to ensure that the life, liberty and dignity of a citizen are not unjustifiably transgressed by the state authorities, it says. It also calls for a total revamp of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems.

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