Raipur: Chhattisgarh journalists are on the warpath.
The 30-day ultimatum they gave to the state government and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to respond to their demands for enshrining a law protecting journalists expired on 2 November.
And yet there has been no response.
The agitating scribes also want Rs 1 crore as compensation for journalists killed in the line of duty.
Reports of the likely return of a controversial top cop, who is both detested and feared by journalists for his alleged overreach, has added urgency to the demand.
The journalists have vowed to escalate their protests. They said with state elections in 2018 and general elections in 2019, political parties ignore journalists at their own peril.
Peaceful march halted
The 30-day ultimatum was given on 2 October, Gandhi Jayanti. Journalists across Chhattisgarh came together for a rally in the state capital of Raipur and marched towards Raj Bhavan to press their demands. But halfway there, police halted the march.
Thwarted, the journalists stood their ground and raised slogans, compelling the governor to send a representative to speak to them. A memorandum listing their demands was handed over to the representative with a copy to the PMO. Sources said the government was shocked and unnerved by the public display of anger. Until now, the media and the Raman Singh-led BJP government have had a fairly cordial relationship.
Several senior journalists who participated in the march said they had not seen a bigger outpouring of anger from journalists in the past 15 years.
The immediate reason for the march was the leaking of a 30-second audio clip made by a Maoist cadre to a group of Bijapur-based journalists who went to the Bastar jungles in September.
In the audio clip, DL Manahar, the former Bastar Superintendent of Police, is reportedly heard telling his subordinates: Stay on high alert. If any journalist is spotted covering Maoists, kill him.
The Bijapur journalists, who were unaware that the message dated back to 2004-2005, brought the clip to the attention of the Bijapur Press Club. The reaction was swift. The club president Ganesh Mishra stated that the wireless message reflected the thinking and attitude of the police towards the media.
ETV Bijapur correspondent Mukesh Chandrakar said journalists started feeling unsafe from the day the audio was leaked.
Copies of the audio clip were sent to the Bijapur police and district administration.
The clip was also posted on social media and went viral.
Durgesh Madhav Awasthi, Director General, Anti-Naxal Operations, promptly ordered an Inspector General-level inquiry.
Meanwhile, some senior journalists questioned the date of the audio clip.
The probe was aborted after it was discovered that the clip was part of a 10-minute wireless message which leaked in 2004-2005.
A three-member committee led by a deputy superintendent-level officer was constituted to look into the matter.
However, this angered the journalists even more. They queried how a deputy superintendent-level officer could investigate a superintendent of police-level officer.
The issue grew larger.
The Bijapur journalists, along with their Bastar counterparts, gathered outside the Bastar commissioner’s office in Jagdalpur and staged a demonstration.
But when nothing came of that, journalists took their agitation to Raipur and the march on Governor’s House on 2 October, spearheaded by the Raipur Press Club. At least six other press associations, including the Bastar Press Club lent their support to the demonstration.
As to why these large-scale protests happened now and not a decade earlier, the answer is simple: Social media, a phenomenon that was all but non-existent in 2004-2005.
Raipur Press Club president KK Sharma, however, said the date of the audio leak or the date it was recorded doesn’t matter. What mattered was that a high-level police officer was heard in the audio clip ordering a ‘hit’ on journalists.
“It is unprecedented. His role must be impartially probed and if he is found to be involved, strict punishment must be meted out so that others learn a lesson,” said Sharma. “Intimidation and killing of journalists is an attack on democracy and the right to free speech,” he added. “Such an assault on fundamental rights cannot be tolerated.”
Sharma said assurances have been given and a letter has been dispatched from Governor House to the Director General of Police and Home Secretary to look into the matter.
“Our demand is simple. We want a comprehensive law to protect journalists and an impartial probe in the [audio-clip] case,” Sharma said. “Therefore, we have given a 30-day ultimatum to the government.”
All options open
Bastar Press Club president Manish Gupta said journalists in Bastar were victims of the hostile acts of both Naxals and the police.
“We want a comprehensive act to protect journalists. The government has passed a security act for doctors. Maharashtra has a journalist protection law. Why not such a law for Chhattisgarh journalists?” he asked. “We’ll get the law. All options are open. All journalist unions are united on the issue.”
Ruchir Garg, editor of Hindi daily Navabharat, said: "The cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh created resentment at the national level. Working conditions for journalists in Bastar has deteriorated to alarming levels. False cases and unresolved cases against journalists abound. There is a rage in journalists. The audio leak acted as a trigger to a ticking bomb,” he told Firstpost.
‘Bastar, a conflict zone’
Garg’s comments echoed the findings of a fact-finding team of the Editor’s Guild of India, which visited Chhattisgarh in 2016.
“Bastar is fast becoming a conflict zone. There is a constant battle between the security forces and Maoists. Journalists are caught in the middle and under attack from both state and non-state actors,” a report by the guild said. “There is not a single journalist who can claim with confidence that he/she is working without fear or pressure.”
The guild’s team visited Chhattisgarh when Shiva Ram Prasad Kalluri was Inspector General of Bastar. Considered a loose cannon, Kalluri does not seem to mind going "outside the box" to get results.
During Kalluri’s tenure, several journalists were branded police informers and killed in cold blood. Others were targeted for being "Maoist sympathisers, couriers and agents".
”From the day Kalluri took up his post, cases of torture, atrocities, intimidation and journalists being falsely implicated increased exponentially. I was tortured and imprisoned because I refused to give in to pressure," said journalist Prabhat Singh.
Journalists such as Alok Putul and Malini Subramaniam were intimidated and hounded out of Bastar.
Grassroots journalists Lingaram Kodapi, Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag and Deepak Jaiswal were reportedly arrested on false charges under the Arms Act and Jan Suraksha Kanoon—which is more stringent than POTA or TADA—branded Maoist sympathisers, agents and couriers of the insurgents.
Fear and insecurity has led to build-up of anger and rising calls for a journalist protection law.
There are unconfirmed reports that Kalluri, who was transferred out of Bastar six months ago, might make a comeback.
The saving grace is that, for the first time in 15 years, journalists across Chhattisgarh have come together.
If Kalluri is the bogeyman they want kept out, they also want an end to surveillance, which keeps many journalists from reporting on the issues affecting Naxals.
Avdhesh Mallick is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Nov 07, 2017 18:08:14 IST