Who killed this scribe?

IN Media Freedom | 20/02/2013
A week after the death of Nemichand Jain, the questions pile up casting a shadow over journalism in this conflict zone,
says GEETA SESHU. Pix: Nemichand Jain (courtesy: Kamal Shukla)

Mystery shrouds the death of Nemichand Jain, a journalist who was allegedly killed by Maoists on February 12, 2013, as they suspected him of being a police informer.

The killing again draws attention to the precarious nature of journalism practiced in rural areas, in conflict zones and in places where the media is unorganized.

Jain was stabbed to death at Leda village of Sukma district late Tuesday while he was returning from a local weekly market to his village Tongapal," Lakhan Patel, a senior police official in Sukma, told a news agency.  While Patel also said he couldn’t confirm whether Maoists or local rivals were behind the killing, police produced pamphlets thrown around the site of the killing that stated the ‘journalist’ was killed for being a police informer.

Jain was well known in the area and had made a name in rural reporting for the last 20 years, said Anil Mishra, Tehelka correspondent from Chhattisgarh. Like a number of journalists here, he was also a distributor of newspapers in his area. “He was a source of information about local issues that he would feed to journalists of the newspapers he distributed,” said Kamal Shukla, journalist and blogger from Kanker district. Jain used to write out short reports and send them to these newspapers, so in the complex information-gathering processes of rural reporting, he did perform a journalistic role, Shukla felt.

According to Mishra, there is still a lot of confusion over the perpetuators of the crime. At first, journalists of the area thought that the pamphlet announcing the Maoist involvement was a fake one! “For one, its colour was not the usual red colour and it was written in a different style, “ concurs Ruchir Garg, correspondent for NaiDuniya.

They point out that the day after the killing, another pamphlet issued ostensibly by the Kate Kalyan area committee, a part of the Darba divisional committee of the Maoists, denied their hand in the killing.  Today, the Kanger Ghati area committee issued a pamphlet taking responsibility for the killing, terming Jain as a ‘mukhbari’ (a spy or informer).

The multiple pamphlets have aroused suspicion that the police have also have a hand in the killing, said senior journalist and President of the Chhattisgarh Union of Working Journalists, NRK Pillai.  Bemoaning the manner in which the safety of journalists was continuously compromised in areas of conflict, Pillai said that he was not at all sure of the authenticity of the pamphlets.

Another factor was that Maoists had never, thus far, killed any journalists in the bloody war in Chhattisgarh, Mishra said. “There was no warning, or threats and his family also said he used to give news of Maoist statements and campaigns too, “ Mishra said.

Garg added that usually, Maoists do issue threats to journalists, maybe even issue an ultimatum to journalists to leave the area. And even then, the Maoists launch an intense campaign against the journalist before taking any action, he added.

Mishra demanded that police investigate reports that Jain had exposed the tin smugglers in the area and had a fight with the sons of a prominent tin smuggler only a few days before his death.  The smuggling of tin and colombite, which villagers extract from rock in the area, is highly profitable and Jain had exposed this smuggling.

Shukla, however, is in no doubt that the Maoists had a hand in the killing of Nemichand Jain.  According to his information, a week before the killing, a local group of Maoists held a jansabha and had kept in custody an innocent person from his village but Nemichand was instrumental freeing this person, angering them.

Nemichand was more of a local social activist than a journalist, Shukla said, and tried to mediate between villagers and the administration to resolve local issues like water supply or get the newspapers he distributed to write on these local issues.The allegation that he was a police informer was also not true, as Nemichand was known to have taken up cudgels against the police, said Shukla, quoting the local villagers.

In his blog, Shukla said that independent journalists of Bastar had actually done a service to the Maoists by highlighting their struggle and the police repression in the ‘undeclared war’ that has led to so much violence and killing in the area. Maoists didn’t take action against journalists who worked for tendu-leaf, mining and timber contractors, corporate houses and the administration, he complained.

Shukla, who was beaten up in 2012 when he tried to report on the large-scale felling of trees by a relative of the state’s forest minister, felt that journalists must boycott press statements from Maoists till they acknowledge their hand in the killings and punish the perpetuators!

For long, journalists in Chhattisgarh have been speaking out on the perils of reporting from the conflict zone. If they highlight local issues, the police target them as Maoists, said Pillai, who, along with Anil Mishra and Yeshwant Yadav,  was at the receiving end of death threats in 2011, issued by the Adivasi Swabhimaan Manch, an organization allegedly sponsored by the police.

“In our areas, it is not uncommon for police to prey on weak journalists and lure them into providing information, “ says Pillai, adding that the arrangement may have gone sour. In fact, journalists are often targeted by the police for being ‘naxal’ informers, he added.

Earlier, journalists received innumerable threats from the Salwa Judum, the militia raised by local landlords with police support to fight the Maoists. In Bhopalapatnam, Afzal Khan and in Konta, Sanjay Reddy and Sheikh Anwar were the receiving of such police allegations. Sheikh Anwar, who was a senior and well-known journalist in the area, was still under arrest, Pillai said.

While journalists have demanded an inquiry into the killing and into the failure of the police to ensure the safety of journalists in the area, it is clear that incident has rattled the media in this already stressed and dangerous place. As Mishra put it, “Thus far, we thought there could be nothing worse than dealing with the police and their harassment, their threats and false cases. But if this news is true and the Maoists also start attacking us and killing us, where do we go and where can our journalism go?” 

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