Chhattisgarh media: sounds of silence

BY Freny Manecksha| IN Media Freedom | 23/04/2011
"I just want to report honestly on the plight of these very poor people....I have reported on how police detain youths and tonsure them. But I face intimidation with thanedars warning me to suppress the reports."
FRENY MANECKSHA paints a grim picture of reporting from this zone of conflict.
Last April, Chhattisgarh blazed into media newsrooms with the massacre of CRPF personnel by Maoists in the forests of Dantewada between Chintalnar and Tadmetla. This April, disquieting reports began filtering in, through community radio, of attacks on villagers in this region between March 11 and 16. The attacks were reportedly by the state police and Special Police officers (adivasi youths employed by the state in the ongoing operations against Maoists). But except for the Hindu and the Rajasthan Patrika, the incidents of burning of houses, killings and rape hardly impacted the mainstream media. The plight of adivasis of Bastar was engulfed in the all too familiar sounds of silence.
 
For many journalists and activists, Chhattisgarh is the most challenging state in the country so far as accessing information and presenting it is concerned. Even issues of governance or a probe into why Chhattisgarh is among the top five states in farmers’ suicides according to figures provided by the National Crime Records Bureau is fraught with difficulties and remains under- reported.
 
The reasons for this are a complex interplay of factors. Besides being a conflict-zone where the state government uses the draconian Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyan (Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act) there are other structural reasons. These include difficult terrain with thick jungles that may be mined, appallingly bad roads, total lack of development that precludes opportunities for growth of a vigorous and lively media, language barriers and absence of an educated middle class amongst its adivasi population.
 
Parachuting into danger while big brother watches!
 
According to Javed Iqbal, one of the few journalists who has covered Chhattisgarh in-depth, logistics is an overriding concern. Just back from Tadmetla, which entails a drive of more than six hours from the nearest road head, he points to difficulties in transport for navigating  roads that can more aptly be described as dirt tracks. Accommodation is virtually non-existent. Dantewada has only one hotel and Konta, the government guest house. The hotel, under state pressure, denies journalists accommodation or makes farcical excuses like the room must be vacated immediately because of an impending puja.
 
Intimidatory practices by the police make it difficult for local resource persons to offer outsiders any help in transport or accommodation. It is an open secret that journalists from outside the state who make their presence visible will be tailed by Special Police officers, ostensibly for their own safety. This of course ensures they never hear the voices of dissent and remain confined to embedded journalism.
 
Ironically this very act of destroying democratic space and the insistence that journalists rely solely on news determined by the police, can rebound sometimes. Says Iqbal, “If, as journalists, we stand to lose access to certain areas because of the state’s tactics, it means we have to resort to quick infiltration and getting out. So, if some of us no longer bother to report the police or state versions, it is because they themselves have destroyed this space.”
 
Travails of local media
 
But what of the media within the state? What is its role? Chhattisgarh boasts of at least 28 newspapers so why is there no spirited campaign even on issues unrelated to security like lack of governance and farmers’ suicides?
 
NR K Pillai, vice president Chhattisgarh Working Journalists Union, who has been in the Bastar district for decades, spoke about the challenges local media persons face.
 
Most of the print media –newspapers or periodicals - are owned by contractors or businessmen who have interests in iron ore mining or even the coal mafia. All they want is to keep their interests alive so they lean heavily on government handouts and press releases.
 
Literacy levels in Dantewada are low (around 25per cent) and very little interest is fostered on issues concerning civil society. There is no real professionalism in the industry. Journalists or stringers receive a pittance. Typically, many of them are expected to bring in advertisement revenues besides doubling as scribes. For a handful of conscientious journalists who struggle against the tide, there is tremendous pressure from both sides. A correspondent for a local daily, who also engages in farming in Bhopalapatnam, spoke of his experiences on condition of anonymity.
 
“I get about 30-40 per cent of commission from the sale of the newspapers in the region. I report on issues of governance like non payment of NREG wages or widow pensions but the climate of suspicion is so high that even if I try to examine land issues I am labelled Naxali. There is pressure on both sides. Even Maoists suspect us of being police agents.
 
“I just want to report honestly on the plight of these very poor people. The way adivasis are being harassed by the police or the inequities like helipads being built to ferry supplies for troops whilst adivasis have to travel over 50 km in the rains through jungle to get rations.  I have reported on how police detain youths and tonsure them. But I face intimidation with thanedars warning me to suppress the reports. I have been threatened and was beaten up by Salwa Judum some years ago.”
 
Since there is not much industry or business in Dantewada and when majority of journalists do not get a salary and are dependent on commissions on adverisements they bring in they are dependent on government officials and local businessmen.The abiity to send their children to schools may hinge on this. This fosters what former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary describes as the art of not writing.“Even without the Public Security Act it is easy to stifle dissent. It is a question of simple economics,” he adds.
 
Jacob Nellithanam, an agricultural activist, believes it is one of the reasons why issues like farmers’ suicides are not getting the attention they deserve. “The media takes its cue from the government which does not see agriculture as the future of Chhattisgarh. A major lobby is seeking to disseminate the message that it is mining or real estate that matters. It is the media and the establishment’s general neglect of the potential of agriculture that is enabling the diversion of land and water resources to other uses.” 
 
He points out interesting discrepancies in the government’s own handling of statistics. In an advertisement brought out in November last year to celebrate ten years of the founding of the state the government claimed an astounding 150 per cent growth in food production in the last decade.
 
This is at complete variance with statistics put out in a pamphlet by the government five years ago where the growth was recorded as just three per cent!
 
One reason why there is no sceptical questioning of the state is because of the lack of an educated adivasi middle class which make it difficult for civil society to debate on crucial issues that affect them. Choudhary, who studied in Chhattisgarh, says the major cause for exclusion of adivasi voices is because of the language barrier. There are hardly any adivasi journalists and very few of the others speak or understand Gondi or the other languages. These lacunae can lead to half truths or total twisting of facts.
 
Iqbal, who stopped using an interpreter because he did not want to put anyone to unnecessary risks, elaborates on the language problem. “When I am tracing a story I have to realise “usko mar diya” could mean being beaten up or being killed or being taken away. Also adivasis have their own sense of time related to the rhythms of their life, the seasonal changes and so on. They will say “barsaat mein” or “garmi mein.....” so it is so immensely difficult to get a specific time frame for a particular incident. Then there is the particularly sensitive issue of reporting rape. Naturally enough the women are hesitant to come forward and how does one pose questions that demand technicalities to them? There are considerations of their mental health.’’
 
He concludes that in the challenge of grappling with the complex moral dimensions and issues Chhattisgarh aptly symbolises the terrifyingly naked face of post-colonial India.
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