Editor's Note: The threat to the sanctity of journalism has not been more serious in these challenging times. With the menace of fake news already rampant, thanks to easy access to social media, there is another legion of individuals who now pose as pseudo-journalists, threatening the very edifice of journalism — trust. In a series of stories, reporters from Tier-I and Tier-II cities in India will examine self-proclaimed journalists and their modus operandi to blackmail and extort money by abusing their ill-gotten power.
Lucknow: While journalists reporting from small towns bring forth the best stories from the grassroots level, some look at this as a way to make a quick buck and indulge in unfair and unethical practices such as blackmail. This is not confined to one or two states, but is seen across India.
News channels, newspapers and news portals often receive complaints about unethical work in small districts. Often, reporters have been found blackmailing government officials and others — about whom they found incriminating evidence — in return for money. Journalists working in vernacular newsrooms often handle other businesses, and use journalism to exert power in their locality.
'Demanded Rs 2 lakh, threatened me'
On 16 June, Sharad A, a reporter from Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh, purportedly threatened the district chief medical superintendent, (CMS) Dr RK Verma. Sharad told the doctor he'd get transferred if he refused to obey his orders.
Verma said the reporter's son was unwell and brought to the hospital. The reporter demanded a private ward. "I informed him that there was no ward available and that he could get his son treated in the general ward, but he started creating a ruckus. When we stopped entertaining him, he started threatening me with a suspension or transfer," said the doctor. He added that Sharad once recorded a video of him having tea with his family during duty hours, and was threatening to report this.
"Initially, I was worried about my job, but having tea or talking to someone is no crime: Whether it is duty time or leisure time. I asked the reporter to do whatever he wants. I'm still here and nothing has happened," Verma said, adding that journalists, who represent citizens, should not be involved in such practices.
On 24 April, the Muzaffarnagar police also received a complaint from a guest house owner a few scribes were allegedly blackmailing as he provided a room to a policeman and his female friend while on duty. "The policeman came to me and asked for a room. He was with his female friend. Suddenly, four local journalists entered the guest house with cameras," said Mohammad Aarif, the guest house owner. They (the journalists) recorded a video and started blackmailing the guest house owner and the policeman, according to the complaint.
"They demanded Rs 2 lakh and threatened my life. They even said that they would make the video go viral on social media if I fail to give them money. But I complained to the police and the matter was solved without spending a single penny," said Aarif.
A senior manager of a renowned mall in Mumbai described one incident where journalists were part of an extortion racket. At a reputed eatery's outlet in the food court, customers claimed to have found an insect in the food after finishing almost 80 percent of the meal. They threatened the eatery that this matter would be published. Within minutes, men from a local political party, a journalist and a photojournalist came to their aid. They started threatening the manager and mall authorities, said if the owner didn't pay them Rs 2 lakh, they will make sure the incident is published and the eatery shut down.
The area manager of the food chain did not agree to pay the bribe, and asked them to take the matter to court. He also said that if there had been a consumer complaint, he would never have to pay Rs 2 lakh, only Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000. Immediately, the journalist intervened and said that if the incident is published, there would be consequences. Finally, they asked the manager to pay Rs 20,000, and said they would divide the money.
'If we don't pay, they publish stories about us'
Dr Biren Kumar Mohanty, senior pediatrician and retired director of Family Planning, Odisha government, said, “When I was posted in Kutra (Sundargarh district, Odisha) about a decade ago, I read in the local newspaper that a relative of an MLA died in the hospital due to my negligence. But I had never treated this patient. I immediately called the newspaper office and said that this had to be corrected: My reputation was at stake. Immediately, the journalist asked for Rs 1,000. The journalist said that if I pay Rs 1,000, they'd publish an apology letter the next day. I had no choice but to pay up. This is common among journalists in rural Odisha. They say that if we don’t pay them, they will publish reports against us.”
Many incidents like these have exposed the shady deals made by journalists in smaller states, who have vested interests and want to abuse their position. An official from the Odisha Police recalled one such incident: A sordid tale involving a contractor-cum-journalist in Bhubaneswar. Such stories are rampant in small towns in Odisha.
In 2016, a local journalist named Rakesh Dash who worked with a leading regional daily in Bhubaneswar met the administrators of city-based Janani Hospital, introduced himself as a journalist. He threatened to run stories on them, including issues related to garbage disposal, and tried to extort money, the official claimed. The hospital, however, approached the Jatni police station and lodged a case against him of extortion.
"Irked, the journalist also tried to trap the police station in-charge back then, DP Dash, who was handling the case. He approached the vigilance department, due to which the station in-charge also faced the music," an official with the Odisha Police said. The journalist was also reportedly involved in other such incidents as well.
Read the first part of the series here.
(With inputs from Manish Kumar and Debdutta Mohanty)
(Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
Updated Date: Jul 06, 2018 14:41 PM