Bail pleas of two journos admitted in C’garh HC

BY GEETA SESHU| IN Media Freedom | 02/05/2016
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the prospects for four jailed scribes are mixed in Chhattisgarh.
GEETA SESHU’S update on the legal travails of journalists here.

 Journalists in Jagdalpur, Bastar district, protest against the continued detention of journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav on December 22.

 

Just a day before the rest of the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day, a small corner of central India is hopeful that two of the four journalists arrested by police on various charges, may inch closer to freedom.

The Chhattisgarh High Court admitted the bail applications for Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jasiwal today and the cases are expected to come up for hearing in a week’s time, said Advocate Kishore Narayan, advocate for Prabhat Singh.

Singh was arrested on March 23, 2016, for sending an allegedly obscene message over a Whatsapp group and Deepak Jaiswal was arrested a week later when he went to the police station to make enquire about Singh’s arrest. Singh faces four cases, including one with Jaiswal where the duo are charged with cheating and extortion.

Earlier, the bail applications of both journalists were rejected by the District Sessions Court in Dantewada, because, as the judge, Nirmal Minj, asked, ‘if journalists get bail, what about all the adivasis languishing in jail?’ The court was wary of granting bail because it would be accused of giving journalists preferential treatment, but what is stopping it from giving bail and relief to all the adivasis in jail, asked Shalini Gera, advocate from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag), which has been monitoring and fighting cases against adivasis, tribal rights activists like Soni Sori and journalists in the area.

Prabhat Singh had been charged in four cases, including under Sec 67 (A) of the Information Technology (IT) Act for allegedly sending an obscene message on a Whatsapp group he was part of. In other cases, he was charged under Sec 353 of the Indian Penal Code for allegedly obstructing a public servant on duty and under Sec 420 for cheating. In one of the four cases, Jaiswal was charged along with Singh for cheating as both had gone to a local school to investigate reports of malpractices during a school examination.

"Earlier, the bail applications of both journalists were rejected by the District Sessions Court in Dantewada, because, as the judge, Nirmal Minj, asked, ‘if journalists get bail, what about all the adivasis languishing in jail?’ "

 

According to Adv Narayan, the cases are of a minor nature and both should definitely be granted bail. ‘Even in the IT Act related case, which is non-bailable and carries a punishment of five years imprisonment, the section charges anyone ‘doing or conducting’ a sexually obscene act. But sending a message on whatsapp hardly constitutes performing a sexually obscene act,” he said.

In another case, the charge of obstructing a public servant includes actual assault or attacking the public servant, for which there is no evidence at all, he added. He was confident both would be granted bail.

Kamal Shukla, editor of Bhumkal Samachar and convenor of the Patrakaar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti (United Struggle Body for the Security of Journalists) told the Hoot that the situation in Bastar continues to be grim. The Samiti was formed to protect the rights of journalists to work and report freely and speak up against any attacks or arrests of journalists.

“There is a lot of fear and intimidation. The local journalists are lying low after the arrests of Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal. Both were active members of the Samiti so it was clear for them that the arrests were meant to send a message to the other journalists to be warned that they would be next if they raised a voice”, he said.

The case against Somaru Nag, the adivasi journalist arrested under various charges of the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act in July 16 2015, is nearing the final hearing stage but since January, when the last but one of the prosecution witnesses deposed before the court, there has been no hearing, said advocate Shalini Gera of JagLag, which has been monitoring the case.

The delay is frustrating, as all the witnesses examined so far have given Somaru Nag a clean chit and said he was not involved in aiding Naxalites. “We do think nothing will come of this case and it can be concluded two weeks after the deposition of the last remaining witness. But for various reasons, the police simply don’t produce this witness and the case is languishing in court,” Ms Gera said.

Santosh Yadav is the only one of the four journalists charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act (CPSA), along with various provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Arms Act. No bail can be granted for cases under UAPA and a special court is assigned to hear these cases.

However, it appears the police are dilly-dallying on the case against Santosh Yadav, feared Shukla. For various reasons, either because he is not produced in court at the appointed dates or case papers are not prepared in time, the hearings have not proceeded.

Advocate Gera explained that charges have not been framed as yet in his case. “There are 18 accused and the police never bring all 18 together to court at the same time, citing various excuses – there are no vehicles, inadequate or no constabulary on duty to accompany all 18, or some other reasons. So no chargesheet has been filed and he is still languishing in court, “ she said.

In fact, the court can use video conferencing in cases related to the CPSA but the judge has not invoked this provision, she added.

Its really a shame that these journalists are not getting bail, she said. The stress on the families of the journalists is unimaginable. Santosh Yadav’s wife, for instance, is an anganwadi worker and is grappling with caring for three small children without much extended family support, apart from a brother who runs around for the legal cases. The families of the other journalists are also handicapped as the main breadwinner in the family is behind bars.

Earlier, the arrests sparked an unprecedented show of support from more than 300 journalists and civil rights activists across the country as they signed a memorandum urging the Union government to release the two journalists. A delegation had met both Information and Broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh.

Despite assurances that journalists would not be harassed and intimidated in the pursuit of their work, Scroll writer Malini Subramaniam (as also the lawyers of JagLag) were hounded out of Dantewada. Soon after, activist Soni Sori was attacked and journalists Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal, who were active in the Samiti to protect journalists, were arrested.

Now, the Samiti has called for a dharna at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, on May 10 to demand protection for the media and to press for a law to protect journalists.

 

Geeta Seshu is an independent journalist and Consulting Editor of The Hoot. She is based in Mumbai. 

 

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