Journalists targeted

Print edition : September 02, 2016

JOURNALISTS working in the conflict zones in Chhattisgarh continue to face attacks from various state actors and non-state elements. At least four journalists have been arrested during the past year or so on what are seen as trumped-up charges. After a sustained mass outrage by local, national and international journalists, the arrests stopped momentarily and negotiations with the State government led to the formation of a high-level committee to look into the arbitrary action. Three of them have since been released on bail.

However, the situation continues to be grim for journalists, and social media, especially WhatsApp and Facebook, are the new tools of intimidation. Most of the attacks are by erstwhile members of the now-disbanded Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM), but several new groups, such as the Mahila Ekta Manch and the Action for National Integrity (AGNI), have sprung up. While vigilantes freely use threats against journalists on social media, journalists have been arrested for alleged social media transgressions.

Prabhat Singh, 31, was arrested on March 21 for posting an allegedly “obscene” message about the Inspector General of Bastar Range on a WhatsApp group and charged under Sections 67, 67(A) and 292 of the Information Technology Act. He worked with Rajasthan Patrika and a television news channel and wrote on corruption in government schemes, policing and civil rights violations in the left-wing extremism-infested areas of Dantewada. “They interpreted a typo in the WhatsApp message to mean something else altogether,” Prabhat, who was released on June 26, told Frontline, showing the screenshot of the message.

Prabhat said that after his release, when he tried to register a complaint against Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Mahesh Soni for threatening to chop off his hands and legs in a WhatsApp group message, police officials refused to register it. Prabhat later addressed a press conference in Delhi and posed for photographs with other journalists. One such photograph was picked up from Facebook and circulated as a poster to show that "while Naxal sympathiser is busy giving interviews in Delhi, Bastar police are busy eradicating Maoism”.

According to Prabhat, he was “abducted” by policemen in plain clothes from his office in full public view and detained in Parapa police station through the night. He was shown as arrested only the next morning from Jagdalpur. He claimed that he was roughed up and the police asked him to write in favour of the I.G., Bastar. He said he was forced to sign a number of blank papers.

Deepak Jaiswal, a journalist who wrote for “Dainandini”, was arrested when he visited the court on March 26 and made a co-accused in one of the cases against Prabhat. The case pertained to a report they published in March 2015, which claimed that teachers in a school in Geedam helped students cheat in the examinations. The principal of the school accused them of trespassing, obstructing public servants from discharging their duty and assaulting a public servant. Jaiswal was charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He was released on bail in June.

On July 16, 2015, Somaru Nag, a Bastar Adivasi, who works as a freelance journalist, was arrested and booked under various sections of the Arms Act and the IPC for keeping a watch while naxals torched a crusher plant in Kodenar. He was labelled a naxal sympathiser, but a local court acquitted him of all the charges.

Santosh, another reporter, was arrested on September 29 and charged with serious offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Powers Act. The charge sheet was filed six months after his arrest and it mentioned him as the prime accused in an August 21 incident in which a security person lost his life in a Maoist ambush. Between August 21 and September 29, he attended press briefings by the police and was only arrested when he was on an assignment probing the harassment of residents of Bhadrimau village in Darbha by the police. When his father met him in prison in July 2016, Santosh told him he had been beaten by policemen in plain clothes in his cell.

Activists demanding the release of arrested journalists, lawyers fighting their cases, and reporters reporting on the harassment are also victimised in myriad ways. Malini Subramaniam, who has reported on atrocities against tribal people in remote villages, was attacked and hounded out of Bastar along with lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. Kamal Shukla, a senior journalist who spearheaded the campaign for the release of the journalists, was summoned by the Adivasi police station in Dantewada in connection with a social media post by him on the government’s Maoist action plan Mission 2016. “In my social media post, I have not said anything that has not already been said by the apex court in its judgment banning Salwa Judum,” said Shukla. After the campaign for the release of arrested journalists in Chhattisgarh picked up steam, the Raman Singh government set up a committee. It had not met even once so far, he added.

Divya Trivedi

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