The lesson from Sirsa

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Freedom | 29/08/2017
Amoral politics makes journalists more vulnerable. That’s the short lesson to be learned from recent attacks on journalists, fatal or otherwise.
SEVANTI NINAN draws the linkages

Gurmeet Singh left, and Ramchandra Chhatrapati, right 

 

What is playing out in Haryana is the equation between media vulnerability and media power.  A district journalist is the most vulnerable of media professionals, he risks life and limb when he takes on those with powerful backers. And yet even after being felled, his killing can extract a heavy price from his killers, provide there is dogged follow up from some quarter. Don’t expect it from the police.

Earlier this year it was former Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Mohammad Shahabuddin in Bihar's Siwan, whom the criminal justice system caught up with for the murder of  several including Hindustan journalist Rajdeo Ranjan, today it is Ram Rahim Gurpreet Singh Insan, of the Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa in Hayana.

The seemingly invincible godman-cum-showman whom ruling party politicians—Prime Minister Narendra Modi , BJP Presidet Amit Shah  and Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar among others—courted, is in jail,  sentenced to 20 years of incarceration for rape, because a district scribe Ramchandra Chhatrapati published an incriminating anonymous  letter implicating him, in his 4-page evening paper called Poora Sach.(The whole truth). The journalist ws then shot at point blank range outside his home by gunmen, a few months later.

He was murdered for his pains but the rape case against Gurmeet Singh persisted for 15  years, thanks to the determination of his victims, the sadhvis who had accused him of rape, and finally led Singh to jail.  Once Chhatrapati had put it in the public domain the anonymous letter written by these women reached both the prime minister of that period, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the chief justice of the Haryana high court. One of the sadhvi’s brothers was also murdered, but she persisted with the case.  The Chhatrapati  murder case has also been pursued in the courts by his family, supported by individual lawyers, and a judgement in that case is expected soon.

In the violence which followed the Dera Sacha Sauda chief’s arrest last week the physical vulnerability of the media has again been on display—TV vans up in flames, a cameraman missing after the violence, a Punjabi language news channel reporter injured in the attacks, as also an NDTV engineer. And perhaps more cases will come to light.

In the immediate aftermath of an attack journalists are vulnerable because of the political protection enjoyed by perpetrators of violence.  Its tough getting cases  registered, and in Chhatrapati’s case the family and hospital failed to persuade  the police to record his dying statement  which would have been admissible in court, even though he survived for 20 days after being shot  on October  26. According to commentator and political activist Yogendra Yadav, just a few days before being killed Chhatrapati had said at a public meeting before some 250 people that he was getting  threats  on account of having published the sadhvis’ letter. He was first treated at PGI in Chandigarh where the police in the Chautala regime did not record his statement, then at Delhi, where the same happened. 

"In the immediate aftermath of an attack journalists are vulnerable because of the political protection enjoyed by perpetrators of violence"

 

It was his family’s doggedness  over 15 years which led to this murder case being pursued in the courts.  This Ravish Kumar show has a charming nugget about how his son would travel 250 km to a  Sirsa court with a single police guard to give evidence, even as  Ram Rahim Gurpreet Singh would depose in the same court via video conferencing.

Now let’s take the case of  what happened in Bihar after Rajdeo Ranjan,  the Hindustan bureau chief in Siwan in Bihar was shot at on May 13, 2016.  Ranjan had published the names on a hit list  of 23, allegedly prepared by the Siwan don  Shahabuddin. Ranjan himself figured at no. 7 on that list.  His wife told a reporter  that there were  least four news reports which Rajdeo Ranjan has published in Hindustan which angered Shahabuddin. That included a picture showing Bihar Minister Abdul Gafoor  dining with Shahabuddin inside the Siwan jail in March 2016.

Though he had been in jail at the time of  Ranjan’s murder he was released on bail in September that year. And gave an expansive interview to a newspaper about his popularity in his former constituency. The reporter asked no questions about Ranjan’s murder.

A year  later in May 2017,  the CBI named Shahabuddin as the accused in Ranjan’s murder. His hitman had named him as the accused during a CBI interrogation, and Shahabuddin  had been transferred from Bihar to Delhi’s Tihar jail.

Rajan’s  wife has persisted in following up the case. Even when a journalist is killed with impunity justice eventually catches up. But should you have to pay with your life for doing your job?

Finally, cut to Andhra Pradesh where three cases of attacks on journalists have been reported recently on The Hoot. The most horrendous is the case of Nagarjuna Reddy a free lance journalist who was assaulted in February this year for a  6500 word cover story, he wrote  in the February issue of  the regional magazine Mattichetula Basa  exposing the corruption of  a two time MLA Amanchi Krishna Mohan of Chirala constituency in Prakasam district.

Here the law has not caught up yet with the MLA, though a fact finding team of lawyers and journalists has given a report and the Press Council had summoned the superintendent of police of Prakasam district  for a hearing. He did not attend.  Instead the police have watered down the case, and said Reddy's wounds were ‘simple in nature’.

Another journalist, a stringer for a local TV channel called iNews,  was attacked for reporting on the illegal sand mining business  in the West Godavari district constituency of a cabinet minister in the  ruling Telugu Desam Party,  looking after labour, employment, training and factories.  And a third, working for Sakshi media was also attacked.  A.D. Babu has been a stringer with Sakshi media for the last nine years covering Narsipatnam constituency of Vishakhapatnam district, and the local MLA and his son are believed to be a behind a physical assault on him in April this year. For his reports exposing illegal laterite mining.

All three are extremely vulnerable for reporting  on political involvement in various kinds of illegal mining in chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s state.  There is no evidence of the law catching up with any of the perpetrators.  No evidence of media power here yet, only of vulnerability.

 

Sevanti Ninan runs TheHoot.org

  

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