Journalists or dacoits?

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Freedom | 18/03/2010
"The atmosphere isn’t conducive. There’s no one really to back us. Press owners will not stand by us. There’s always the fear of what will happen to our families."
GEETA SESHU tracks the fate of journalists in Dantewada

On January 5 2010, two independent journalists from Mumbai, Priyanka Borpujari and Satyen Bordoloi , a documentary film-maker, Nishtha Jain and a law student and RTI activist from Hyderabad, Suresh Deepala, were charged with dacoity after a clash with local journalists in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh.  The group had been visiting the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram to document and report on a ‘jan sunwai’ (public hearing) organised to record the testimonies of adivasis on their problems.

The group alleged that their cameras were snatched by police and security forces while they were detained for a few hours. Nishtha Jain was escorted to Raipur by security forces while the other three, who were also ‘asked’ to leave, opted to stay put. Their cameras were subsequently returned to them but all the photographs and video recordings they had made were deleted.

The Superintendent of Police, Dantewada district, Amresh Mishra, told news agencies that a case of dacoity under Sec 395 of the IPC was lodged against the group, based on a complaint made by local journalists. The latter allegedly complained to the police that the group had used vulgar language and accused local journalists of adopting a pro-police and pro-government stance in their reportage of the ongoing conflict in the area. They even snatched the cameras of local journalists, it was alleged, and hence they had been charged with dacoity!

Mishra disclosed that members of the group had also filed a counter-complaint against local journalists alleging that they had snatched cameras and mobile phones but police have not registered this, merely inquiring into the complaint.

The fracas spilled over the next day, as a mob comprising adivasis as well as representatives of local media, protested the visit of civil liberties’ representatives, including Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey and Kavita Srivastava of PUCL. The latter were in Dantewada to attend the ‘jan sunwai’ but the mob, under the banner of ‘Maa Danteshwari Swabhiman Manch’, alleged that they were Maoist supporters. Despite the presence of a large security force, the mob threw eggs and tomatoes at the activists. Patkar later said that the protests were ‘state-sponsored’ and that the tribals had been specially brought from a nearby relief camp. She had also wanted to meet Kopa Kunjam, an activist of the VCA lodged in Dantewada jail on charges of murder, but the latter allegedly refused to meet her, police said.

Journalists, researchers unwelcome in Chhattisgarh?

But why were these independent journalists and human rights activists unwelcome in Chhattisgarh? According to Borpujari and Bordoloi , the police were actually trying to prevent journalists from gaining access to Sodi Shambo, tribal woman, age 28 years, and a resident of Gompad, Dantewada. Sodi Shambho was one of the victims and witnesses of the Gompad killings by police and SPOs on 1st October, 09 and a petitioner in Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 103 of 2009 in the Supreme Court. On 2 January 2010, Sodi Shambho  was on a bus from Dantewada town to Raipur, when she was stopped by the Dantewada police for questioning.

Attempts to meet her or ascertain whether she was safe were thwarted by police, the activists contended. Police, on their part, maintain that they were keeping her in their custody for her own security!

(Later, as it transpired, Sodi was taken to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) for treatment and journalists who tried to meet her on January 15 were roughed up, their cameras snatched and the pictures they took were deleted.

In a press conference in Mumbai on January 13, Borpujari and Bordoloi said that they had complained to Mishra about the destruction of their cameras. Jain made a complaint to Reena Kangle, the district collector, Dantewada about the damage to their cameras and the deletion of their film clips. The latter, however, told her that the security forces would ‘never do something like that!’

Operation Green Hunt and media coverage

Operation Green Hunt was launched last October as a coordinated battle between security forces of seven states (Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh) and the Maoists located in the forest belt. It has already claimed scores of lives, displacing lakhs of tribals and causing untold destruction in its wake.  Human rights activists and leaders  of non-governmental organisations like Gandhian Himanshu Kumar of Vanavasi Chetna Ashram fear that Operation Green Hunt is a culmination of the process started by the infamous Salva Judum in 2005, systematically emptying the villages and jungles of tribals, leaving the mineral rich field free for big mining companies.

However, little of this has been covered by the media as both local journalists and mediapersons from national dailies and periodicals who have tried to document the operation are actively discouraged from doing so by security forces.

Not just mediapersons, but human rights activists and researchers who visited the area were intimidated and even denied accommodation in lodges and guest-houses. On December 29, 2009, Delhi University professor of sociology Nandini Sundar  and political science professor Ujwal Kumar Singh who visited Bastar for research on the plight of the tribals were unable to find any accommodation, followed everywhere and were forced to leave without fulfilling their task.

While the Director General of Police Vishwa Ranjan said that this was for their ‘protection, SP Amresh Mishra admitted that he was ‘asked to escort visiting dignitaries’ out of the area!

The experience of journalists who represent national dailies and periodicals was no different. Tehelka journalist Tusha Mittal, was also abruptly asked to vacate a lodge on January 4, 2010. In an article entitled ‘Life behind the Iron curtain’  Mittal writes:

The battle between the State and Maoists is well known. But in Chhattisgarh, another battle is fast gathering steam between the State and civil society, between a policed existence and the idea of democracy, between a coerced media and free speech.....

At a recent press conference in Raipur, Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan told journalists on record that there could be police action against them if they wrote in favour of Naxalites. Two weeks ago in Dantewada, SRP Kalluri, the DIG-Anti Naxalites, called journalists into his office for one-on-one sessions. "He told us not to write in favour of the Naxals (euphemism for not writing anything against the State) and said the police have their eyes on us," says NRK Pillai, vice-president of the Chhattisgarh Working Journalists Union. "The atmosphere isn’t conducive. There’s no one really to back us. Press owners will not stand by us. There’s always the fear of what will happen to our families."

(The media is already working under the shadow of the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA), also called as Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, 2005. Amongst the sweeping and general provisions of Section 2(e) of the Act are:

 

An ‘unlawful activity’ would mean any action taken by individual or organisation whether by committing an act or by words either spoken or written or by signs or by visual representation or otherwise which constituted a danger to public order, peace or tranquility or interfered with the administration of law, encouraged or preached disobedience to established institutions etc Offenses under this act are cognisable and non-bailable.

 

In 2006, Kamlesh Paikra, the Bijapur correspondent of Hindsatt in Dantewada district was hounded out of his home and lost his job after police and Salwa Judum activists harassed him for writing about Salva Judum cadres burning down villages and about the Maoists. Another journalist from Bijapur, Lakshman Singh Kusram, was reportedly threatened by police for his reports in a local publication that women had been beaten by the police. Local politicians belonging to the ruling BJP have also threatened the media for reporting on the Salwa Judum against Maoists.

 

In this scenario, as both the local and national media is systematically silenced; Operation Green Hunt - arguably the largest security action launched by the Indian state within its own borders - is conducted away from the public eye.

 

The result: the death of innocents and the destruction of the environment are rendered completely invisible and unaccountable.

 

 

 

 

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