By Mahtab Alam
In 2003, after completing my senior secondary, I was thinking about taking up journalism as a career option when I was advised by my father not to do so. He felt that as a working journalist, I would hardly be able to meet my needs and there would always be a threat to my life and liberty while performing my journalistic duties. My father’s understanding was not based on knowledge gained from books, but on what he had seen in my hometown Supaul, a small town of northern Bihar. To further explain his point, he told me the story of a local journalist who was a stringer for/representative of at least three dailies. And how, because of his reports, he had been beaten black and blue in the midst of the market. On my visit to Bastar last week, I met several local journalists working in the area and I was reminded of this story by my father, told more than a decade ago. Sadly, it was worse than what my father or I could have imagined.
Journalists working and living in Bastar grapple with various issues, professional and otherwise. To begin with, they do not have any steady source of income because they work mostly as stringers, contributors and agents.
But this is only a part of the entire story. The biggest problem that they face is repression and threats from criminal networks. “Whosoever questions the official narrative is, or will be targeted, if not completely eliminated,” a senior journalist told this writer during his visit.
The recent case of Prabhat Singh serves as a window to what the senior reporter was hinting at. On 21 March, Singh went missing from Dantewada, only to be produced at a local court the next day while the police officials kept denying his arrest or detention. According to Prabhat’s lawyer, Prabhat had informed the judge that during his illegal detention, he was subjected to torture. His chest and hands were witness to several marks of this nature. The immediate trigger of his arrest, as was claimed by the police, was under the IT Act for posting an “obscene message” about a senior police officer on a WhatsApp group. In addition, he was charged with three other cases.
It must be noted that Prabhat is the fifth journalist to be targeted in the region over the past year, and the third from the region in less than a year. Two local journalists, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag have been in jail since July and September 2015 respectively. In February this year, Malini Subramaniam, a contributor for the website Scroll.in was allegedly forced to leave Bastar under police pressure. Prior to that, her house in Jagdalpur was attacked, she was intimidated and warned by the local police-backed vigilante group, Samajik Ekta Manch. In a similar manner, Bilaspur-based journalist Alok Putul, a long-time contributor for BBC Hindi was threatened by local police officials while he was in Bastar for reporting. He somehow managed to flee the region before something untoward could happen to him.
By all accounts, Prabhat was known to be a fearless journalist, who over the years had reported on a range of issues. He was familiar with journalists not only from Chhattisgarh, but from outside the state as well. Those who had not met him were at least familiar with his name. At the time of his arrest, he was a stringer with the Hindi daily Patrika. He had also worked with a television network for two months and it is alleged that his contract was suspended under police coercion.
I remember meeting Prabhat in Dantewada on 17 March in Geedam (Dantewada, Bastar). I asked him if he knew Santosh and Somaru and if he feared imminent arrest or targeting like Santosh and Somaru. While he denied knowing the duo personally, he feared that he could also be arrested as he had five cases against him and was warned by a police official to not be smart or else he would not be spared.
Unfortunately, it is not just Prabhat who is afraid of his life and arrest. There are other journalists living and working in the region who are in an equally vulnerable condition. Such is the terror in the state that in the wake of Singh’s arrest, a regional Hindi daily, Navbharat ran a front page signed editorial comment with the heading, “Silence, This is Police State”. As I was writing this, we were informed by a local journalist and editor of weekly Bhoomkal Samachar, Kamal Shukla, that another journalist named Deepak Jaisawal (Bureau Chief, Dantewada of local Hindi daily Dainindini) had been picked up by the police this afternoon. According to Shukla, he has been made a co-accused in one of the cases in which Singh has been booked.
Over the years, journalists in Chhattisgarh have been targeted by both the local police/security forces as well as the Maoist armed groups. In 2011 and 2013, two other journalists were also killed in the state allegedly by the security forces or by the Maoists.
While I was in Bastar, I had heard from various journalists that a team of the members of Editors Guilds of India was also in the region to investigate the plight of journalists. It was indeed a welcome move on the part of Editors Guild to send a team for investigation. However, we are yet to hear anything on their findings and recommendations. Surprisingly, there has been no statement yet by the Guild on the arbitrary arrest of Prabhat.
It was great to see eminent journalists marching to the Supreme Court when journalists were attacked in Delhi. While what had happened to journalists in Delhi was just one incident, for journalists in Bastar, it is a routine. Hence, it requires urgent intervention on our part. The Government, Press Council, media organisations and civil society groups must take notice of the situation and intervene in to the matter urgently before it is too late. Remember, it is matter of life and death for them.
(Mahtab Alam is a Delhi-based activist and writer. He tweets @MahtabNama)