Chhattisgarh: danger zone for scribes

IN Media Freedom | 06/01/2011
Three journalists are threatened with a dogs death in a pamphlet, the DIG police says they were black sheep. Fear grows as police and vigilante groups increasingly intimidate both mainstream and citizen journalists.
Anyone who writes honestly about the police is immediately targeted, local journalists tell GEETA SESHU

The intimidation of journalists in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district shows no signs of letting up and, in the last few weeks, at least five journalists (including two citizen journalists) have been at the receiving end of either death threats from a vigilante group of the infamous Salwa Judum or not-so-gentle questioning from local police about their work.

While two journalists have had to leave their place of work and re-locate elsewhere, a woman video journalist was forced to vacate her residence last week.  The threats have severely hampered their functioning and some have even stopped writing or sending news from their area, fearful of threats to themselves and their families.

Dantewada is widely seen as the epicentre of the conflict between the Maoists and security forces, witnessing continuous violence from both sides. The trouble has escalated in this predominantly tribal region ever since Operation Green Hunt was launched as a coordinated effort from central and state forces against the Maoists. The media, local and national, that report on the conflict, is often caught in the crossfire and walk a shaky tightrope.

Threats from Salwa Judum front organisations

In the latest offensive, three journalists - NRK Pillai, Anil Mishra and Yashwant Yadav - were named in a pamphlet reportedly issued by the Adivasi Swabhimaani Manch on December 8, 2010. The pamphlet accused Maoists of destroying civil life in the region and said that the three journalists could not ‘live long in the garb of human rights’ and must leave the region, failing which they would meet a  ‘dog's death’!

Mangal Kunjam, a reporter for the mobile and internet based news service, CGnet Swara, posted the news of the threat on Dec 11 after which it secured wider coverage. But, in the aftermath of the publicity, Kunjam was called to Kirandul police station and was asked if he was reporting for CGnet Swara. He was also warned to "behave" in future!

Recalling the sequence of events that led to the present threat, he said that on December 6, BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi had called a press conference in his residence. Before the press conference began, a few journalists (including Yashwant Yadav) gathered there were chatting with the BJP district secretary Anup Sood, when the latter suddenly pointed at Yadav and said that if the Maoists distributed pamphlets, ‘they’ would do so too!  He attacked the media for giving publicity to the Maoists and on December 8, when the pamphlet of the Adivasi Swabhiman Manch was released, journalists were surprised to see the same language Sood used in the pamphlet.

A delegation of journalists then went to the Deputy Inspector General of Police and senior SP of Dantewada SRP Kalluri, to complain about the pamphlet and the threats issued to three of them. "Kalluri read the pamphlet and said: oh, but this has been issued by our organisation.  I think there was a mistake. Anil Mishra can be a Maoist but your name (referring to Pillai) and Yadav’s name were wrongly mentioned!", said Pillai. The astounded journalists asked for a clarification about the identity of the organisation and Kalluri reportedly told them the Danteshwari Adivasi Swabhiman Manch was formed for the benefit of the adivasis!

However, Kalluri, when contacted by this writer over the telephone, flatly denied any such claim. "The matter is under enquiry. But Adivasi Swabhiman Manch has nothing to do with the pamphlet," he categorically stated. As far as the police link with the manch, he said this was ‘absolutely false, trash and rubbish."

Asked about the climate of fear journalists were operating under, he said it was ‘all bullshit’. "I meet journalists daily. Sitting in Bombay, you don’t know what the situation is here. It is different. These three are the black sheep. No one is with them," he said. When pressed further to explain how these three journalists were ‘black sheep’ he said "I don’t have time for all this rubbish," and terminated the phone call.

Naturally, local police did not file an FIR about the pamphlet and said that since it was unsigned, there could be no accused and refused to take cognisance of the statements made by Anup Sood a couple of days before.  The Chhattisgarh journalists union then filed complaints before the Chief Minister, the Inspector General of Police, the district Collector, the National Human Rights Commission and will also file an affidavit before the Chief Justice, Chhattisgarh.

Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh met a delegation of journalists a few days ago. "We told him how journalists risked their lives to secure the release of police personnel abducted by the Maoists and he assured us of security and said he appreciated our work. Yet, we still don’t feel reassured," Pillai said.

Intimidation and the chilling effect

Video journalist for India Unheard, Bhan Sahu, was called to Ambagarh Chowki police station in Rajnandgaon district last week. "The police wanted to know what work I do and where I get my money from. They asked so many questions of my landlord that I had to leave the rented house I was in. I was forced to shift my residence only yesterday," she said. Sahu turned in at least two video bulletins a month and has featured stories of villagers seeking compensation for development work, non-payment of salaries for school teachers and staff, access to school for children cut off by rivers and streams, etc.

The steady silencing of journalists who ask too many inconvenient questions is not merely at the level of physical threats or attacks. Social approbation for those who cross the line is also a reality. Sahu has been facing immense pressure from her family for the work she does. "I am very disturbed now. For the last 15 days, I haven’t been able to venture into the field. Where will I get news if I can’t travel around? People at home ask me to give up this work, my relatives are under pressure...though I have been engaging with social issues for the last seven years and more, I am now very disturbed," she said.

Shubranshu Chaudhary, founder of CGnet Swara, said that citizen journalists had been at the receiving end of seemingly innocuous visits from police on a number of occasions. "But this is the first time they have come out to speak of it. I know of several people who have stopped reporting on cgnet swara because of police interference," he adds.

For the local police, mainstream media is itself anathema and the citizen journalists of CGnet Swara - mostly local social activists who communicate in their own language - are clearly an emerging threat. CGnet swara complements mainstream media and is a move towards greater democratisation of the media, feels Chaudhary. "The administration and police should look at us as a platform where people can voice their grievances, not try to stop us. In any case, we are not a platform for only negative stories. Human rights stories are less than five per cent of what we put up."

Pillai is a veteran journalist and vice-president of the Chhattisgarh Union of Working Journalists. He was former correspondent for ‘Jansatta’ and now writes for Tarun Chhattisgarh while Mishra is a correspondent for the New Delhi-based magazine ‘Tehelka’ and Yadav works for ‘Deshbandhu’, a Hindi daily. Mishra, who worked earlier for the Hindi daily ‘Nai Duniya’, wrote a number of articles on the conflict. He was forced to leave Dantewada after pressure was brought upon his newspaper’s owners to transfer him to another district. He now reports from Raipur.

"I have stopped writing nowadays, my family is frightened and feel threatened and now I’m fighting a false case that my house is illegal and will be demolished anytime," said Pillai, adding that that was the fate of most journalists who attempted to write honestly about the conditions in the state.

Mishra, who experienced immense trouble from police, is unable to understand why his name figured in the pamphlet. "I don’t work in Dantewada anymore. My company was under pressure from the government so I resigned and shifted to Raipur. Anyone who writes honestly about the police is immediately targeted," he added.

Pillai added that journalists have, in the past, raised questions about encounter deaths in Singhavaram or Kirandol and atrocities by security forces against women.  He continued, "If you speak or write against the police or the government, they make you a target. The police feel that human rights activists are coming to Chhattisgarh because of journalists like us. I have made it clear to them that I write about the atrocities against the innocent adivasis, whether by the Maoists or by the security forces or the Salwa Judum."

Pillai gave the example of an incident of a grave with three corpses uncovered near a police camp a while ago. "When we asked the Superintendent of Police (SP) how the corpses were found so near the police campus, he said,: 'you are too smart, we must have an enquiry against you' - that is the police response to our questions!"

It will take a lot more than mere words to bring security back to the lives of journalists reporting from the frontlines of Chhattisgarh. Labelling them and intimidating them, as the police seem bent on doing, will only increase the climate of insecurity they work in.


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