After the Laxman Choudhury episode

BY Sarada Lahangir| IN Media Practice | 02/01/2010
After a stringer without an ID card from his paper languished in jail for two and half months, journalists in Orissa are organising themselves under the banner of Media Unity for Freedom of the Press.
SARADA LAHANGIR reports from Bhubaneswar.

?It was the day of our victory. The victory might be a small but it was a significant one. This victory was not the end of our fight but it was the beginning?. These were the sentiments journalists expressed when they assembled in Bhubaneswar on December 14, 2009 to celebrate Laxman Choudhury?s  release from jail.

The journalists who spoke on this occasion had come from all over Orissa. They were not from any union or any particular organization. Every one of them had come on their own just to give the moral support to Choudhury and his family and to say that the entire media fraternity will always fight for their right, and against injustice.

Laxman Choudhury of the daily Sambad was finally freed on bail on 3rd dec 2009 after being held for ten weeks in Gajapati district in the eastern state of Orissa. Released on the orders of the Orissa High Court, he is still facing a sedition charge because of the allegation that the local police found Maoist leaflets in his possession.

After his release I spoke to him. He said, ?I was called by the IIC Mohana on 20th September. When I went  to the police station at 11oclok on that day I found that IIC  (Inspector in Charge) Mohana, IIC Adaba Ps, SDPO od R Udaygiri and SDPO Mr.A.Singh who was the incharge SP of Gajapati, were there .They asked me about my identification and asked whether I had some connection with naxals. They asked me that how I could get the pictures of the naxal posters pasted in the wall of different area. I told that the people informed me and being a journalist I have to cover news that does mean that I had connection with naxal. Then they used some unparliamentary words and asked me to signed on a paper where it was written that the leaflets by the naxal directly or indirectly belong to me . I denied then I request them to make a call to my office but they snatched my telephone and forwarded me to the court?.

Journalist are considered as the fourth estate of our democracy but in Orissa there are cases of the harassment of journalists by the police. Mr Laxman Choudhury is the latest example of this. Mr Laxman was reporting and also running a small newspaper/magazine shop at Mohana to make his two ends meet.  He was working as a stringer for Oriya daily Sambad for Mohana. Block stringers are contributors, they are paid by column inch.  Here the system is that a daily newspaper keeps the district reporter on a retainership, but at the block level they maintain  stringers whose posts are purely temporary. Even  district reporters are employed on a contract basis. They are not permanent employees.

 

He has been contributing to Sambad for more than eight years. But when the police arrested him on September and aske him to produced the identity card of the Sambad  he could not because he was not provided an ID card by Sambad. Later when he was forwarded to court and the case went out of the hand then the editor sent him the I card. His friend and other journalist came to know about his arrest on the same day night. Then we came to know the next morning, 21st september.

As Gajapati district is one of the backward tribal dominated  and naxal-affected areas, Mr Choudhury  has been highlighting many issues like poverty, deprivation of the people, misappropriation of  government funds,  all of which might made him a  headache for the administration or the police. According to him he had covered one Ganja seizure story in the Mohana block. He alleges that he was asked not to release the story because there is a nexus between the ganja mafia and the police. Since then the local officer in charge was angry with him and this might be one reason for his arrest.

After that the journalist all over Orissa started protesting against his arrest. On 7th Oct a four member delegation headed by a veteran journalist Prasant Patnaik, India TV correspondent, met chief minister to intervened in this matter. CM assured. Then nothing was done and the journalists sat on Dharana in front of the Rajbhawan on 9th Oct. and gave a memorandum to the Honble Governor. When the case moved to high court Advocate Jaganath Patnaik was willing to be the counsel without taking any fees.

During this period his young wife Binati Choudhury and small daughter led a miserable life at Mohana.  . After his arrest there was nobody to manage his small stall as a result of which his family members faced  an acute financial problem. His wife came to know in the night at 10 pm when one of his friend called her up. ?When I came to know first I took it easily because I thought police might have called him for any information about any story. Later I became worried and started contacted his journalist friends. They extended the support, which they could. Time passed and when it was two weeks I left hope because everybody virtually ostracized me and many tried to demoralized me saying that no chance of his release. But his journalist friends and journalists from Bhubaneswar had already taken up this issue. They also gave me some financial support. Still it was a miserable day which we had spent here without my husband. I don?t have any knowledge about journalism.?

 

 It was not be out of way to mention here that the IIC Mohana, who had conspired to arrest Mr Choudhury, had met him in the jail recently and had virtually tortured him mentally saying that Laxman would spend rest of his life in jail. He is also circulating such rumours in the locality, which had very much upset Laxman and his family members.

 

Charges levelled against Laxman by Mohana Police under IPC were 120A,  criminal conspiracy, section 120B. Punishment of criminal conspiracy, section 121, ( this was dropped on 6 October 2009  after the intervention of the chief minister)  and section 124A, sedition.

On October 9 City-based journalists sat on Dharna in front of the Governor?s house and gave a memorandum to the Honorable Governor. When the case moved to high court Advocate Jaganath Patnaik willing to be the counsel without taking any fees.

Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that defends press freedom worldwide, also supported him and gave one memorundum to the Governor.  They also extended the financial help to his family.

The Media Unity for Freedom  of Press Convention resolved to observe December 14 as Media Unity for  Freedom of   Press Day every year not only in the state capital but in all district headquarters.

 

These were some of its demands:

 

MUFP demands that the state government pass necessary orders to ensure that prior to slapping charges such as sedition, waging war against the State and criminal conspiracy against any working journalist ? whether accreditated, self-employed or freelance- the concerned police officials seek the recorded approval of the state Home department, preferably of the Secretary of the department .

 

MUFP calls upon the Chief Minister to honour his promise by withdrawing all charges levelled by the Mohana police against Sri Laxman Choudhury. A quick and favourable response by the Chief Minister in this matter will pave the path for a healthier interface between the media and the administration. 

 

MUFP also calls upon the state government to take stringent action against the people who were behind the murderous attack on fellow journalist and green activist Sri Jagannath Bastia as well as the government employees who assaulted two journalists working for the Odia daily, Arombh. The state should compensate them for all medical  expenses incurred by them towards treatment. 

  

MUFP demands the setting up of a State Media Centre on the vacant space inside the Jaydev Bhawan premises with minimum facilities such as a media room that offers Broadband and P&T services on usual payment, an auditorium with a 200-seat capacity to be used for press briefings and conferences, a reading room, a library and a canteen. The state government should respond to this at the earliest.

Finally, the  MUFP also resolved to appeal to editors and management of all newspapers and channels both at the state and national level to ensure that media personnel working for them in rural,tribal and Maoist-affected areas under the most difficult and challenging conditions are given proper recognition and identity cards. That could help them immensely vis a vis the authorities especially the police.

 

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