NEW DELHI: A fact finding team of the Editors Guild of India to Bastar district in Chhattisgarh has raised serious questions about the role of the state government, the administration and the police in muzzling the freedom of the media. The team reported a pervasive atmosphere of fear perpetuated by the arrest and imprisonment of journalists, and threats and attacks on others to leave the district and the state altogether.

The team met Chief Minister Ram Singh who gave an assurance that he would ensure that journalists would not be harassed. However, almost immediately after another journalist was arrested.

The team also noted the creation of a vigilante group Samajik Ekta Manch that is said to be funded and run by the police headquarters. This Manch is responsible for attacking and intimidating journalists in the district.

Excerpts from the report:

Bastar division of Chhattisgarh state is fast becoming a conflict zone. There is a constant battle on between the security forces and the Maoists. Journalists, caught in the middle, are under attack by both the state and non-state actors.

Several incidents have been reported over the past few months of attacks on journalists. At least two, according to the reports, were arrested and imprisoned and others threatened and intimidated to a point where they had to leave Bastar for fear of their lives. The residence of at least one journalist, according to the information, was also attacked.

The Editors Guild of India constituted a three member Fact Finding Team to look into these reported incidents. Since Seema Chishti was unable to travel, Prakash Dubey and Vinod Verma travelled to Raipur/Jagdalpur on 13th, 14th and 15th of March, 2016.

The fact finding committee members met a number of journalists and government officials in Jagdalpur. In Raipur the team met Chief Minister Dr. Raman Singh and all top officials of the state, several Editors and some senior journalists.

The team recorded the statements of journalists Malini Subramaniam and Alok Putul. It also visited the central jail to meet journalist Santosh Yadav.

The fact finding team came to the conclusion that the media reports of threats to journalists are true. The media in Chhattisgarh is working under tremendous pressure. In Jagdalpur and the remote tribal areas the journalists find it even more difficult to gather and disseminate news. There is pressure from the state administration, especially the police, on journalists to write what they want or not to publish reports that the administration sees as hostile. There is pressure from Maoists as well on the journalists working in the area. There is a general perception that every single journalist is under the government scanner and all their activities are under surveillance. They hesitate to discuss anything over the phone because, as they say, “the police is listening to every word we speak.”

Several senior journalists confirmed that a controversial citizen group Samajik Ekta Manch’ is funded and run by the police headquarters in Bastar. According to them it is a reincarnation of Salwa Judum

Challenges to Journalists: Some Cases

Challenges of writing for the newspapers are not new in Bastar division of Chhattisgarh. A journalist Premraj, who was representing the Deshbandhu newspaper in Kanker, was booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activity (Prevention) Act (TADA) in the year 1991-92 when the undivided Madhya Pradesh state was ruled by the BJP. He was charged with being close to the Maoists.

He was later acquitted by the courts for want of evidence.

In December, 2013 a rural journalist Sai Reddy was killed by the rebels in a village near Bijapur. According to the police, a group of Maoists attacked him with sharp edged weapons near the market and fled from the spot.

Bastar Journalist Association President S. Karimuddin told the fact finding team that in the year 2008, Sai Reddy was arrested by the police and kept in jail under the controversial Chhattisgarh Special Security Act, accusing him of having links with the Maoists. On the other hand, the Maoists suspected him to be loyal to the security forces and set his house ablaze and killed him later.

In February, 2013 one more rural journalist Nemi Chand Jain was also killed by the rebels in Sukma. Rebels were under the impression that he was passing messages to the security forces. 45 days after his murder, the Maoists apologized for his killing.

Last year, in 2015, police arrested two news persons under the same controversial law for allegedly having connections with the Maoists. One of them, Santosh Yadav was arrested in September. He was a stringer for at least two Raipur based newspapers Nav Bharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh. The editors of both the news papers have owned the journalist. The fact finding team met Santosh Yadav in the Jagdalpur Central Jail, where he said that he is also suspected by both the sides of being close to the other side.

A second journalist, Somaru Nag was arrested in July, 2015. He was also a stringer and news agent for a Raipur based newspaper, but that newspaper never came forward to own him as their employee.

Charge sheets in both the cases have been filed and the matter is pending in the courts.

On February 8, 2016, the residence of Malini Subramaniam was attacked by some unidentified people. She is a contributor for and former head of International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). As Malini told the fact finding team, her house was attacked in the early hours of the morning. Malini found stones scattered around her Jagdalpur residence and the window of her car shattered. According to her around 20 men gathered around her house a few hours before the attack, shouting slogans like "Naxali Samarthak Bastar Chhoro", "Malini Subramaniam Murdabad". She suspected that the same people must have been involved in the attack. According to the local administration, “her writing is one sided and she always sympathizes with the Maoists.” The same allegation was made by the Samajik Ekta Manch. According to the local administration the Manch is being run by citizens opposed to the Maoists. However, the journalists in Jagdalpur and Raipur said that it was supported and financed by the police. A few of them said that the Inspector General of Police Mr. SRP Kalluri is directly involved in this.

The latest case was reported by BBC Hindi journalist, Alok Putul who was forced to leave Bastar after he received threats. According to his statement, recorded by the FFT (fact finding team), before these threats Alok received messages from the IG and SP who refused to meet him maintaining that they preferred to deal with “nationalist and patriotic journalists.”

Fear Factors

FFT could not find a single journalist who could claim with confidence that he/she was working without fear or pressure. The journalists posted in Bastar and the journalists working in Raipur, all of them spoke of pressure from both sides.

They said that the journalists have to work between the security forces and the Maoists, and both sides do not trust journalists at all.

All of them complained about their phone calls being tapped by the administration, and being kept under undeclared surveillance. The government officials categorically denied these charges. Principal Secretary (Home) BVK Sumbramiam said, “I have to sanction every single request for surveillance and I can say this with authority that no govt. department has been authorized to tap phone calls of any of the journalists.”

The journalists posted in Bastar said that they cannot dare to travel to the conflict zone to report because they cannot report the facts on the ground. Although collector Jagdalpur, Amit Kataria told the fact finding team that the whole of Bastar is now open for everyone, including journalists.

The President of Divisional Journalists Association of Bastar, S. Karimuddin said, “I have not visited any place outside Jagdalpur for the last six years, simply because I am not supposed to write the truth and if one cannot write what one sees then there is no point going out to gather information.” He represents UNI in Bastar for more than three decades.

A similar claim was made by the Editor of a local newspaper Dilshad Niyazi who said that he had not visited the neighboring district Bijapur for the last eight years out of fear. Another senior local journalist, Hemant Kashyap, well travelled in the area said he knew Bastar like the back of his hand but that now journalists had stopped travelling. “All the journalists have now stopped going inside the forests because of the fear of police as well as Maoists,” he said. “Now we ask Maoist organizations to send photographs and press releases. We publish them as we receive them because we don’t want to explain every single line we are writing to them. Similarly the police expect us to publish its version so most of the journalists print their press releases as well without asking any questions,” Kashyap said.

Malini Subramaniam told FFT that even if someone dares to go out to gather information, one is not supposed to talk to the people. She said, “Police officials expect journalists to believe and publish whatever they claim. They don’t like it if someone wants to walk an extra mile for finding the facts. In one case of surrender, when I tried talking to a couple of people, they asked me to identify the persons I wished to talk and then they briefed them before I could reach them.”

The fact finding team found that this fear is not confined to the tribal areas only, but is there in the capital city Raipur too, 280 kilometers away from Jagdalpur. All the reporters working in Raipur also said that their telephones were tapped. Some of them shared incidents that confirmed this. A very senior journalist, who is considered to have a cordial relationship with the Raman Singh govt. said, “No one is spared, not even me. They have been tapping my phone calls too.” Government officials denied this charge as reported earlier and claimed that not a single journalist is under surveillance. They said that there was a perception gap and they would try to change this.

Chief Editor of an old and reputed newspaper Lalit Surjan said that it had become extremely difficult for a journalist to do his/her job. During his meeting with the FFT he said, “If you want to analyze anything independently, you cannot do it because they can question your intentions and can ask bluntly, ‘Are you with the government for with the Maoists?” He admitted that this problem was not only with the government, but also with the Maoists. He said, “Both sides feel that what you are writing is wrong.”

Surjan said that it was becoming increasingly difficult to work in areas like Bastar as the journalists cannot avoid meeting Maoists, and the government is not prepared to give them even the benefit of the doubt. “The government should respect democratic rights and should give benefit of doubt to the journalists,” he said. He questioned the arrest of the two journalists Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag and remembers Sai Reddy, who was killed by the Naxals, as a fine reporter.

Difficult Terrain:

Major part of the conflict zone is in Abujhmarh, which means ‘unknown hills’. It is hilly forest area which is home for many tribes. The population in this area is very thin. According to the 2011 census India’s average population density is 382 persons per square kilometers but in this part of the country the population density is 10 persons only. Then it is one of those areas of the country where Malaria is common. Because it is also the so called liberated zone of the Maoists, it is very difficult to go inside the jungle to gather repo

Government’s response

The FFT met Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh Dr. Raman Singh at his residence. All top bureaucrats of the state were also present in the meeting. Editors Guild’s executive committee member Ruchir Garg and editor of a local daily Sunil Kumar were also present in the meeting.

The Chief Minister said that he is aware of most of the incidents and he is concerned about it. He said that his government is in favor of free and fair media. He informed the fact finding team that after the controversy over the arrest of journalist Santosh Yadav he had called a meeting of top officials and some editors and formed a monitoring committee which will be consulted for any cases related to the media and journalists.

About the phone tapping and surveillance allegations, the principal secretary (home) assured the team that he is the authority for sanctioning surveillance and he could say that not a single journalist is under surveillance. The principal secretary to the CM admitted that there is a perception gap and said it was the government’s responsibility to change this perception.

The attitude of Bastar IG Mr. SRP Kalluri towards the press also came up in the meeting. The CM instructed the officials that the behavior of one officer should not take away all the credits of the good job the government is doing in Maoist area. Some senior police official with credibility should be authorized to talk to the press, he said. Principal Secretary (Home) should visit Jagdalpur and interact with the media, the Chief Minister instructed.

CM Dr Singh assured the FFT that his government has no prejudice against any one and he will personally take all necessary steps required to make media free of any kind of fear.