Expose gangster-politicians at your peril

BY MALINI SUBRAMANIAM| IN Regional Media | 13/08/2017
Three violent assaults in Andhra Pradesh show the vulnerability of reporters who cover illegal sand mining by criminal politicians.
MALINI SUBRAMANIAM reports

Rama Reddy recovering in the hospital in Tanuku

 

That freedom of press and expression is increasingly under threat in India is an undisputable fact. The direct assault is perhaps worse for grassroots reporters and stringers who uncover the corrupt and illegal practices of regional politicians, making them vulnerable to violent attacks aimed at silencing them.  

Andhra Pradesh is no exception to this phenomenon. Just as in states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Punjab, here too political parties have used media houses as political vehicles for party political interests. The political parties’ bonhomie with media houses  in this state is public knowledge

When reporters and stringers work for media houses who are affiliated to a political party, their stories are often used to vilify the party’s opponents. When that happens, reporters who diligently uncover stories of corrupt practices by politicians in their constituencies become targets for brutal attacks by the politicians who are being exposed.

A close look at three separate attaks on three stringers in Andhra Pradesh and how the state responded exposes the close nexus of party politics with media houses and how politicians engaged in criminal activities often get away with it owing to the clout they enjoy among a community whose votes will be needed in elections.  

"When reporters and stringers work for media houses who are affiliated to a political party, their stories are often used to vilify the party’s opponents"

 

Nagarjuna Reddy, a freelance journalist from Prakasam district who contributed an article to a local Telugu magazine Mattichetula Basa against the corrupt practices of the local MLA in Chirala constituency, was attacked on the street in full public view in February this year.  

Rama Reddy, a stringer with iNewsin West Godavari district who covered the Achanta constituency, was attacked in March for exposing sand excavated illegally from Siddhantam village in Achanta.

A. D. Babu, a stringer with Sakshi Media from Vishakhapatnam district who covered the Narsipatnam constituency was attacked in April for reporting on illegal laterite mining in Nathavaram.

All three had to be hospitalised for serious injuries.

 

Nagarjuna Reddy: attacked over illegal sand mining

Nagarjuna Reddy was chased, kicked, and beaten up with rods on 5th February. He is a freelance journalist covering the Chirala constituency. For five years, from 2010 till 2015, he was with Vishal Andhra, a CPI-supported print media.  For one year he worked with G 24x7 news channel until he became a freelance contributor to a regional Telugu magazine Mattichetula Basa.

Nagarjuna Reddy

 

He was assaulted for a cover story, ‘Chirala ku Cheeda Purugu’ (Creature of Chirala) in the February issue of Mattichetula Basa which exposedthe corrupt activities of two time MLA Amanchi Krishna Mohan of Chirala constituency in Prakasam district.

 

Rampant criminal activities go unchallenged 

Reddy’s 6500 word story revealed Amanchi’s criminal activities, based on his political power and affiliation with the ruling Telugu Desam party. Using RTI, Reddy traced the 30-odd criminal cases filed against him since 1996. These included brutal attacks against any opponent who objected to his illegal liquor storage, illegal sand mining, illegal water connections, running cable networks,etc.

According to a 2013 report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Andhra Pradesh, Amanchi  is known for his illegal activities, for expanding his ‘empire’ by keeping a ‘private army’ handy to attack and threaten critics and exercises  clout over the local police.

A quarterly India Human Rights Report of 2011 recorded the threat of arrest issued by the Chirala DSP against a local RTI activist for filing RTI applications about Amanchi’s activities.  

In one incident, Amanchi, along with his private army, ransacked the Vetapalem police station, pelting stones and intimidating the officer in charge with dire consequences for arresting his brother. He also violated the Election Code of conduct on several occasions. Six cases of violations of the Election Code of Conduct were filed against him, all of which stand discharged by the High Court.

Amanchi’s’s illegal sand mining activities including digging in the 2.3 acre graveyard of Santinagar and Ramanagar villages of Vetapalam Mandal.  “Pieces of human flesh and skeleton were pulled out as the JCB dug into the sand,” said Reddy’s   report.  In 2009, a vigilant officer in Nellore was beaten up for raiding and seizing his sand mining work and imposing a Rs 5 crore fine against the MLA. Later, this was reduced to Rs 1 crore due to ‘some understanding’, Reddy reported.

In 2015, Amanchi set up a factory, M/s Crystal Sea Feeds Private Limited, for which he laid two underground water pipelines of 294 meters in Nayanapalli Reserve Forest area for the supply of water to his factory in Pottisubbaiahpalem village. A complaint registered by villagers is pending investigation with the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission.

Villagers were allegedly beaten up for objecting to this diversion of the water.  When they refused to budge, Mohan told his supporters from the village to socially boycott those who opposed him.   

"In 2009, a vigilant officer in Nellore was beaten up for raiding and seizing his sand mining work and imposing a Rs 5 crore fine against the MLA"

 

About 15,000 copies of Mattichetula Basa magazine carrying this story by Reddywere printed to be put on magazine outlets and for private circulation.  As distribution began on 4th February, members of Amanchi’s private army seized about 40 copies from individuals who were distributing them.

The next day, Reddy was shopping in the market with his son when he noticed a vehicle blocking the road, with its doors open to prevent other vehicles from passing. Reddy saw men emerge from the vehicle, running towards him. They attacked him with iron rods. CCTV footage captured by a shopkeeper was shared on social media. It showed Amanchi’s brother, Amanchi Swamulu, chasing and beating Reddy incessantly.

To understand why both Amanchi Krishna Mohan and Swamulu have not been arrested, it is important to note that Prakasam district has 12 constituencies, eight of which are held by the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and four by the YSR Congress Party.  Amanchi belongs to the Telaga community of Kapus who form 27 per cent of the coastal population and are a powerful political lobby that has the strength to sway electoral results. 

He successfully fought the 2009 elections on a Congress ticket.  The AP-Telangana bifurcation saw many political twists and turns. While many shifted loyalties or floated a new party, Amanchi teamed up with the less well known Navodayam party. He won the election in 2014 too. 

 

No action against Reddy’s assailants

Soon after the shocking video of the attack on Reddy went viral, a team of journalists and lawyers visited the place in March to ascertain the facts and came out with a report seeking ‘stringent action against the erring persons’, namely Amanchi Krishana Mohan, his brother and their associates.

The team were challenged by a crowd of some 200 Amanchi supporters. “While we were not threatened or anything, we were certainly taken aback at the display of such a crowd,” said one of the team members.   

The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, condemned the attack and asked the police to take strict action against Amanchi and his brother.  He also directed his deputy chief minister, Nimmakayala Chinna Rajappa, to prevent a repetition. A district level committee to investigate attacks against journalists was meant to be put in place. 

The Press Council of India (PCI) also set up an enquiry committee on 14th March.  Despite letters from the PCI, the superintendent of police did not appear for the hearing.  In its 15th March directive, the PCI said that ‘till the next hearing of the case, no coercive action is to be taken against the concerned journalist’.

What followed was exactly the opposite.

Reddy was arrested on 24th April as he was returning from a media function at Vijayawada. Two cases of criminal intimidation and atrocities against SCs/STs were filed against him and he was sent to Chirala prison where he spent 23 days before getting bail.

Meanwhile, the charges against Amanchi and his cohorts were diluted by the SP because a medical report described Reddy’s wounds as ‘simple in nature’. 

“In 2015 I filed a petition in the district court fearing attacks from the MLA, but it was not taken seriously,” says Reddy. It is now over six months and his attackers roam freely in public. 

 

Rama Reddy: his stories invite fury

As a stringer with iNews, Rama Reddy has been filing reports for the last four years from the Achanta constituency of West Godavari district.  On 1st May, iNews aired news on illegal sand mining gathered by Reddy.  The news report hints at the involvement of politicians from the ruling party in the Siddhantam sand reach that has left the local people worried because they fear flooding could be triggered by the indiscriminate mining. 

Soon after the news was aired, in the early hours of May 4th, Reddy and his mother heard some persons moving around the house. What happened next led to Reddy spending one month in hospital. After asking if he was the iNews reporter, the stranger at the door asked Reddy to join him at a nearby location where a brawl was underway.

“I was taken aback when I noticed an iron rod slip off from his side,” says Reddy. Suspecting foul play, he ran inside to get his video camera while the man at the door ran away. Reddy called the police but within minutes four men had jumped into the compound of his house and begun beating him till he fell unconscious. His 70 year old mother was also slapped hard.

Reddy remembers opening his eyes in hospital to discover he had a broken left ankle, a fractured leg and a deep cut in his head that had to be sutured with 12 stitches.

Reddy’s story was on the illegal sand mining from Siddhantam village in Penugonda Mandal of the constituency. A contractor had got a Rs 5 crore contract for a land filling job for two sites in Penugonda Mandal where low cost government houses were to be erected. Reddy’s claims were that the mining was being undertaken by the contractor without proper environment clearances. According to C. Mohan Rao, Assistant Director, Mines and Geology, Eluru, West Godavari district was allocated only ten sand reaches in 2016-17 Siddhantam sand reach was not given permission given its sensitivity to various environmental parameters.   Siddhantam is in Achanta constituency.

"Irrespective of which party one is from, most politicians have their hands dipped in sand"

 

West Godavari district has 15 constituencies, 14 of which are held by TDP MLAs and one by a BJP MLA. Achanta has been held for two consecutive years by Satyanarayana Pithani who comes from the Settibalija community, a dominant backward class community. Pithani won the 2009 assembly elections for the Indian National Congress while in 2014 he won again but this time after switching to the ruling TDP. Pithani is currently a cabinet minister looking after labour, employment, training and factories.

Local sources claim that Pithani has a flourishing business in sand mining. “Irrespective of which party one is from, most politicians have their hands dipped in sand,’’, says K. Gopalan district secretary of the CPI (M). That there are illicit links among politicians of all parties, contractors and builders is an open secret. The returns from sand mining activities, says Gopalan, are extremely lucrative – about Rs 7-9 crore per month. 

Most politicians own heavy trucks to transport sand, despite a ban on the use of such vehicles. These trucks transport sand to neighbouring urban centres and states in clear violation of the new sand mining policy. Politicians manage government contracts for the construction of housing facilities for the lower socio-economic classes, which then becomes an easy way of extracting sand. 

Sandmining in Siddhantam sand reach.

 

The permission that is given for a certain quantity to be extracted is then used as a pretext to excavate way beyond this quantity for personal profit.

After a month, on May 8, the police arrested four persons for the attack on Reddy but claimed that the attack had nothing to do with his reporting and was, in fact, an old family feud between Reddy and his cousin. The police said that Reddy was exposing the sand business for revenge over one of his female relatives marrying into the family of one of the arrested men.

iNews, launched in 2009,  is an agency run by ex-Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy’s relative. Opposed to Andhra-Telangana bifurcation, Reddy resigned from the Congress to form his own party – Jai Samaikyandhra Party, however, though Pithani resigned under pressure from Reddy, he joined Naidu’s TDP.

“Though Rama Reddy might be good in his profession, the attack is due to animosity between the two families,” the police concluded in a press release.

“While it is true there was friction between our two families due to the marriage, this is many years old. I do not know who attacked me but the fact is that the attack came after I filed the story of illegal mining,” says Reddy.  

 

A. D. Babu: more illegal mining

A.D. Babu has been a stringer with Sakshi media for the last nine years covering Narsipatnam constituency of Vishakhapatnam district where he has been unearthing illegal laterite mining in Nathavaram village. Over the years, his stories have prompted many threats but no attack – until the evening of April 25 when he was sitting in an internet cafe filing a story. Armed men stormed inside and brutally attacked Babu.

He was rushed to hospital. It was a fortnight before he was discharged. The Press Council of India made a fact-finding visit to Nathavaram where it found that ‘illegal mining activities were going on’ and concluded that since ‘none of the attackers were known to Babu, this prima facie proved that the mining mafia hired them to silence the journalist from exposing their nefarious activities with the help of a section of the ruling party’.

A D Babu in hospital after the attack.

 

Narsipatnam MLA, Ayyanna Patrudu Chintakayala, from the Velamma community, is a longtime TDP loyalist holding massive electoral support.  In the last nine elections held so far in Narsipatnam, he lost only three times. He is  Minister for Roads and Buildings. Villages falling in the Sarugudu gram panchayat of Nathavaram Mandal in Narsipatnam have been at the centre of controversial illegal laterite mining since 2009 and as a Sakshi reporter, Babu had covered the illegal construction of a road in the Thorada village where the mining was taking place.  A reporter, who does not want to be named, opined that locally most observers felt the Minister and his son, who is allegedly involved in the mining, were behind this attack.  Late June this year, the Maoists issued a threat letter to the Minister’s son Chintakayala Vijay asking him ‘to mend his ways’

Sakshi Media, for whom Babu worked, was launched in 2009 by Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRC), a party founded by Y S Jaganmohan Reddy.  Of the total 175 seats in the state, YSRC holds 67 seats.  YSRC party is the leading opposition party in the state assembly.

Investigating the attack, ASP Rastogi said it had ‘more to do with some issues between the journalist and the attackers’ rather than Babu’s exposes. However, the police arrested three persons for attempt to murder, voluntarily causing hurt, and criminal intimidation. 

 

Stringers are easy targets

“It is always stringers who are vulnerable to attacks”, says Ch. Krishnanjeneyulu, President of the Andhra Pradesh Journalists’ Forum who took the matter of Babu and Reddy’s attack to the chief minister and home minister. The Forum gets on an average about 20 complaints of threats, attacks and abuse annually from media personnel. Most of these complaints, adds Krishnanjeneyulu, are from the costal districts of Prakasam, Guntur, East Godavari, West Godavari, Vishakhapatnam and Srikakulam and most stem from stories on illegal mining, usually where those in power are involved.

Close links between media houses and political parties have existed for a long time. Andhra Pradesh has about a dozen news channels and many more print media, most of which have political (and often caste) affiliations. 

“Most media houses hire stringers to be based at the constituency and, depending on the media house the stringer is associated with, the stringer is expected to get news of the political opponent,” says a reporter with a media house affiliated to a party. Corrupt politicians, who perceive the news-chasing stringer as a threat to their political and business ambitions, find him an easy target to attack.   

 

Where now for the three reporters?

Today, Babu is back at work with Sakshi which gave him all the necessary support for his recovery.

Rama Reddy finds himself restricted to his house, unsure how he will take his life and career forward. His ageing mother wants him to quit his job as a reporter. With a rod supporting his broken shin, he still limps around but hopes to re-join iNews

"It is always stringers who are vulnerable to attacks"

 

Nagarjuna Reddy is unable to move his fingers and wrist properly yet maintains a high spirit. The publisher of Mattichetula Basa, to whom he contributed articles, was forced to wind up his magazine because of the threats issued by Mohan.   

Though Reddy has not been able to publish anything, he has used social media to share news of corruption and illegal business deals.

Reddy is not surprised that Amanchi and his brother have not been arrested. Though Amanchi is not with the ruling TDP, he belongs to the Kapu community and the TDP, he says, will not want to antagonise a Kapu who enjoys influence in a community whose votes are needed to win elections.

How does he hope to continue his work and keep safe? “I’ll probably have to look for work in a media outlet that is not inclined towards the Kapu community,” says Reddy.  

With state elections approaching in 2019, political propaganda will increase and the heat will be felt by none other than the stringers who will it find it difficult to do  independent reporting.

 

Malini Subranamiam is an award-winning independent journalist based in Hyderabad.

 

 

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