Shades of Repression

BY ninan| IN Media Freedom | 10/03/2003
Shades of Repression




Take a look at the increasing number of states where journalists are besieged




A Hoot  Editorial



Check out the much-touted claim: India is a vibrant democracy with a free press. The vibrancy is perhaps not in dispute, but just as the democracy part of the package is constantly under pressure, so is the freedom of  the country’s press. When its leading lights are not smothering news pages in commerce, the government is frequently stepping in to lay a  heavy hand on those whose job it is to report. Sometimes it is the Centre, but increasingly it is the states.



Take a look at the increasing number of states where journalists are  besieged. In UP Chief Minister Mayawati keeps them on leash,  with her information directorate drawing up lists of  journalists considered friendly to her government, and those considered not. If you are in the wrong list you could be dropped from official press briefings or asked to vacate your government house, or just become a public target of the CM’s wrath.



 In Chennai Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s tolerance for the  press is low. Her government specialises in filing  defamation suits against news organizations and journalists. The Hindu is facing five cases,  Dinakaran seven, the Statesman five, Dinamalar two, Dinamani two, the New Indian Express two and Junior Vikatan two. There have been series of police raids and arrests against the staff of the Tamil magazine `Nakkeeran’, which do not seem to follow the book of law. When the AIADMK was in power the last time, during 1991-96, over 100 defamation cases were filed against media organizations and journalists. All these cases were withdrawn at one stroke just before the elections.



Now  in Kerala,  journalists are increasingly becoming the targets of police, politicians and the mafia. Ever since the present Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) came to power, there have been  several instances of journalists being denied access to their sources, police harassment for anti-government reports, and false cases being instituted. The anti-media move began with Speaker Vakkom Purushotaman banning television cameras from recording the Assembly proceedings and imposing new   restrictions. Chief Minister AK Antony regularly complains about what he sees as a lack of media objectivity.



 In the latest episode which has led the Kerala Journalists Union to file a petition before the Press Council of  India, journalists were at the receiving end at Muthanga where tribal leader CK Janu was leading the agitation demanding that the government honour a 2001 agreement for distribution of lands to the landless tribals.  Kairali TV cameraman Shaji Pattanam was severely beaten up, his camera destroyed, and his money taken away. He was driven, along with other journalists, away from the scene where the police outraged the tribal women and children, says the petition. He had to spend many days in hospital.


Journalists continue to be denied permission to speak to the arrested tribal leaders even after 16 days in custody, denying  people their right to learn the other side of the story. The Kerala government continues to restrict movement of journalists forcing them to rely on the official versions alone. The local police have now registered a case against Asianet reporter MK Ramdas, a member of Kerala Journalists Union, listing him as one of the ‘conspirators’ in the ‘armed revolt’.  In an earlier incident, police had raided the house of a reporter of  the Madhyaman daily, P. K. Prakash, in Kochi. No charge sheet was brought, though the allegation was that he was aiding protests against the Global Investor`s Meet. The police had filed charge sheets in the case against Soorya TV reporter, Anil Nambiar, and its News Editor based in  Trivandrum for conspiracy against Minister, K. V. Thomas. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists however had alleged that that journalists were being intimidated and that the police were drawing up a `blacklist` of journalists critical of the Government.



Gujarat  Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s honeymoon with Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh, newspapers which defended his record during last years riots, has ended. And  he is taking it out on the media at large. Like Jayalalitha’s dispensation in Chennai his officers and ministers know that they are not expected to talk to the press.  Entry for journalists to the secretariat is suitably restricted.  Modi has now discontinued the shuttle service between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar for journalists, which has apparently  been in operation since the formation of the state. It was a boon for  Ahmedabad  scribes, with the  state capital located  30 km away.



The short message is, just as the Centre slaps an Iftikhar Gilani into jail and offers no compensation or  apology when it releases him seven months later, the states too are learning to turn on the repression without explanation or apology and restrict access to their conduct of  governance.  Why is this happening? Because of intolerance of criticism, or an unwillingness on the part of governments to subject themselves to scrutiny? Or both? In how many cases are journalists in the wrong?



Civil society is not out on the streets shrieking about these assaults on press freedom. Has the media alienated society at large completely? Surely not. It may be a very imperfect institution, but with all its warts, the media is a bulwark against  facism and the excesses of the state. People have to rise to its defence, so that it can rise to theirs.  









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