FIR against UP journalist Pawan Kumar Jaiswal for exposing irregularities in mid-day meal blot on Indian democracy

The arrest of Pawan Kumar Jaiswal is a clear case of trying to intimidate a journalist and erode the foundations of a free press to protect the corrupt.

Suhit K Sen September 03, 2019 13:54:16 IST
FIR against UP journalist Pawan Kumar Jaiswal for exposing irregularities in mid-day meal blot on Indian democracy
  • The arrest of Pawan Kumar Jaiswal is a clear case of trying to intimidate a journalist and erode the foundations of a free press to protect the corrupt.

  • Attempts to intimidate the media and prevent them from fulfilling their function has become increasingly common over the past few years.

  • Ranked 140 out of 180 globally in terms of press freedom is inexcusable for a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

The Uttar Pradesh administration has brought upon itself entirely justifiable charges of draconian, illegal and repressive conduct by booking the journalist who filmed the midday meal consisting only of salt and roti in a school in Mirzapur district on charges that invite the death penalty or life imprisonment. This while, those who rip off children to line their pockets, are free to continue doing so.

Let’s get the facts straight, to begin with. Pawan Kumar Jaiswal is a journalist with a Hindi newspaper and is a resident of Siyur, where the Siyur Primary School is located and where he shot the video of children being fed salt and bread. Jaiswal says that a villager Raj Kumar Pal had got in touch with him and informed him about the goings-on in the school, upon which he went there and shot his video.

FIR against UP journalist Pawan Kumar Jaiswal for exposing irregularities in midday meal blot on Indian democracy

Representational image. Reuters

After the video clip went viral on the internet on 22 August, district magistrate Anurag Patel had said that ‘such irregularities were happening because of the mismanagement of teachers’. He had also said that the video was authentic and action would be taken against those responsible for the departure from prescribed menus. In fact, acting headmaster Murari Singh and nyay panchayat member had been suspended after the video went viral.

Later, Patel conducted an enquiry following orders issued by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and submitted a report last Friday. Apparently, a first information report (FIR) was lodged on Monday against Jaiswal and two others after a block officer, Prem Shankar Ram, registered a complaint based on Patel's report.

Charges have been filed against Jaiswal, Pal and an unidentified person, which include criminal conspiracy, obstructing a public servant in discharge of functions, concocting false evidence and cheating. The lattermost alone can invite capital punishment or life imprisonment. The complainant, Ram, alleged, according to reports, that the video clip was part of a larger conspiracy to defame the state government and a cooked-up story, one presumes no pun was intended.

Let’s look at Ram’s story, which is the official one. The police said that though the midday meal was normally served to students between 10:30 and 11 a.m., on 22 August it was served at 12:53 p.m. A representative of the village panchayat went to the market every day to buy the vegetables necessary for cooking the meal. For 22 August, Rs 300 was paid in advance to the vegetable vendor, but no one went to him to take the materials. Patel said on Monday that Pal was responsible for doing this, but did not carry out his responsibilities on 22 August. He, then, got in touch with Jaiswal and took him to the school.

Among a truckload of officials, all of them responsible in one way or the other for the salt-roti meal, this is the best they could come up with. Several questions arise: Why initially did Patel say that such irregularities happened because of mismanagement by teachers? What are the implications of his finding the video authentic? Why did he say that action would be taken against those responsible and why, indeed, were two people suspended? Why did the school not send somebody else to collect the vegetables? Pal could have been ill or otherwise occupied. Why did the school authorities decide finally – after two hours had elapsed from when the meal was supposed to be served – to serve rotis and salt? Ram’s allegation that a journalist conspired to ‘mischievously’ create a situation in which nothing else but salt and roti could be served is beyond surreal – it is, in fact, criminally insidious. This story has more holes than a colander and would have been risible had it not sounded criminally untruthful, self-serving and concocted to save the skins of people profiteering at the expense of children.

Let’s take a look at Jaiswal’s story. Soon after the news about the FIR became public, he released a video from an undisclosed location making the following points: Pal had informed him about the midday meal and consequently he went to the school at around noon and found the story was true. He spoke with the members of the school staff who told him that this menu was in operation for a year and a half. The staff members also told him that ‘some officers’ had told them to let matters rest since no senior officer would bother to visit the school, which was far away from the district headquarters. Finally, the scribe alerted basic education officer Brajesh Kumar Singh about the story before reporting.

Three issues need to be flagged in respect of this story: one, corrupt activities depriving children of proper and mandatory meals containing specified nutritional standards; two, trying to cover up these corrupt activities by concocting ridiculous explanations; and, three, like the Editors Guild of India, put it, ‘shooting the messenger’.

Let’s concentrate on the last point. This is not just a case of shooting the messenger who brings bad tidings. It is a case of falsely implicating a journalist who was reporting a story on serious charges with the aim of covering up corruption at the level of the school (as the district magistrate had said himself) and, at least, at the block level, as Jaiswal claims the school staff had told him. This is a clear case of trying to intimidate a journalist and erode the foundations of a free press to protect the corrupt. Unfortunately, attempts to intimidate the media and prevent them from fulfilling their function – keeping the public informed about all manner of things – has become increasingly common over the past few years.

This has been reflected in the fact that India has dropped two places on a global press freedom index and is now ranked 140th out of 180 countries in the annual Reporters Without Borders analysis, released in April this year. The period before this year’s general elections was flagged as a particularly dangerous time for journalists. The ‘World Press Freedom Index 2019’ found an increased sense of hostility towards journalists across the world, with violent attacks in India leading to at least six Indian journalists being killed in connection with their work in 2018.

India was in 106th place in 2005 but slipped to 122nd place in 2010. It was at 140 in 2014, improved to 136 in 2017 and fell for two straight years – to 138 in 2018 and 140 in 2019. It is arguable that international agencies cannot get it right because of the complexity of India, but 140 out of 180 is inexcusable for a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

 

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