Reporting on a struggle means becoming part of it’

IN Media Practice | 30/09/2010
‘Only the media can give voice to the oppressed. To me, journalism is a way out of the mindset that nothing can be changed’.
In an interview with PRIYANKA BORPUJARI, Prabhu Mohanty and Rabi Rout talk about why they still believe journalism can effect change and about their moral obligation towards the people of Kalinganagar. Pix: tribal protest in Kalinganagar.
Orissa may be one of the most mineral rich states in the country today, but it is also the most impoverished. While much has been written about the former as part of the 'India Shining' campaign, the media has sidelined the abysmal quality of life of the people. The media has held its nose high and refused to sniff the blood of the indigenous people who are laying down their lives to protect their land from forceful land-grab. The exceptions are the fortnightly magazine Samadrusti and the video-format shows that are produced by Samadrusti TV, Kamyab TV, and daily newspapers Aarambh and Suryaprabha.

Prabhu Datta Mohanty and Rabi Rout, from Kamyab TV and Aarambh respectively, have been reporting about the atrocities on tribals in Kalinganagar Industrial Complex, in Jajpur Road district. As though 11 steel plants were not enough to leave the impoverished tribals landless, three more are soon to come up. Among them is the Tata Steel plant, for which it has signed an MoU with the state government to acquire 5,000 acres. The people are ready to give their lives to save their land and Prabhu and Rabi have been chronicling this struggle at the risk of their own lives. In an interview with PRIYANKA BORPUJARI, both talk about why they still believe journalism can effect a change in the society, and their moral obligation towards the people of Kalinganagar. 
How did you get into journalism? What is the political stand of the news organisations you represent?
Prabhu: I have been a reporter for various news channels since five years and I have been working with Kamyab TV since two years. It is an entertainment channel but also has large time slots for news. The channel is owned by a man who has interests in mining too and yes I have managed to air news about Kalinganagar's struggle.

My grandparents were freedom fighters and I learnt from them that change in the society cannot be brought about by sitting at home. Only the media can give voice to the oppressed. To me, journalism is a way out of the mindset that nothing can be changed.

Rabi: I have been the Jajpur Road correspondent of Aarambh for two years and have been with other newspapers, including Saptahik for five years. I have been a full-time trade unionist since 1992, when I graduated. I was close to one of the trade union leaders and as I organized workers’ meetings, ensured media coverage and wrote about labour issues I travelled to every nook and corner of Orissa and met the trade union members at each of the places.
While I was working with Saptahik, Aarambh was launched as a weekly newspaper. It seemed to be a different kind of a newspaper. It represented the common man and became the leading newspaper. Saptahik shut down almost as soon as Aarambh was launched and I also switched jobs. Aarambh focused on people's movements, SC/ST issues and displaced people. We were strictly told to leave out news about mundane accidents or scuffles and concentrate of the woes of the common man. This was also a way to attract readers.

I know the area and the issues of Kalinganagar like the back of my hand. My relationship with the tribal leaders of Kalinganagar dates to the time when they began their agitation against the steel plants in the early 90s.

What difficulties have you faced in reporting on Kalinganagar?
Prabhu: I was attacked twice in Kalinganagar. This was after March 29 this year, when the people of Kalinganagar opposed the common corridor project. Bisthapi Birodhi Jana Mancha (BBJM) was negotiating with the district administration and the state Finance Minister Prafulla Ghadai, regarding this project. Even as the meeting resolved to form a committee to negotiate with the tribals, police descended on their villages and sealed them. Nobody could leave or enter the place. In the past six months, 56 people have died due to various illnesses as no medical aid is reaching them and they were not allowed to get out of their homes. I was attacked by the cops and goons employed by a steel company while trying to help the villagers. They recognised me from my television appearances. I heard them screaming that if I was killed news leakage would stop. They beat up me and three other journalists severely.

Rabi: In 2004, Bhushan Steel had planned to set up their plant but had abandoned those plans, thanks to the agitation. In 2005, Maharashtra Seamless was next in line to set up its plant. But the people agitated. The police had attacked the tribals who were resisting forceful land grab. Most of the people hid in the jungles for two days. Two children aged two and one, from the same home died crying while waiting for their parents to return. Two men who were beaten by the cops succumbed to their injuries, while 25 women were arrested. Two of the women were pregnant at that time, and in the travel between the jail and village, both of them delivered in police vans. That incident really shook me. 
The incident was reported all across Orissa and Maharashtra Seamless was compelled to leave the place. It was this land that Tata took over in 2006. People of Kalinganagar are suffering every day and this issue needs to be kept alive across India. They are being terrorized by the cops and are dying from lack of medical attention. They are living in perpetual fear that they may not wake up alive, be beaten or arrested.
What is the situation in Kalinganagar right now?
Prabhu: Since it is monsoon fields are not being leveled but this work will begin soon.
Rabi: Tatas will resume the leveling work once the monsoon is gone. During the monsoon they had used people who had parted with their lands as labour to mark the land to be leveled. This has been done under police watch.
What other news organisations are reporting on Kalinganagar?
Prabhu: Earlier, even ETV would show news about Kalinganagar but now they are mum as they have begun to receive ad revenues from various steel companies.
 Rabi: Aarambh and Suryaprabha are the only two newspapers who are giving a different picture of the struggle in Kalinganagar, from the perspective of the tribals.
How tough/easy has it been for you to get access into the area?
Prabhu: Earlier the police were stationed everywhere and one would be stopped several times before reaching any village in Kalinganagar. They would ask us where and why we were going, and then they would say, `'There is nothing there for you to write about. Go back home.’' Similar is the case now.  T he level of security only varies. But the district administration is doing nothing about it.
Rabi: The access to Kalinganagar is not that tough now, but if any reporter attempts to go there at night, the cops would be alarmed. If not the cops, then the goons will ransack the vehicle and damage it. If you were to report the assault the cops will ask you to describe the features of the goons or even their names and addresses. So what kind of an FIR can be registered?
Have there been times when you have had to do things beyond your traditional roles of journalists?
Prabhu: There have been occasions when we have stopped buses to force them to take ill people to hospitals. At times, even though we have very little money, we have bought malaria medicines for the people. There was a time when I would go there about four times in a week carrying medicines, even when I did not have a story from there.
Rabi: I have been observing the struggle and because I write about it, I think I am also a part of it. The job of a journalist is not only to report the truth, but also to do what he thinks is right, even if that goes beyond the call of his journalistic duties. It is necessary to reach out to them and share their burden.
What has been the impact of your reportage?
Prabhu: We reported about the Rs 1 lakh being offered in compensation to villagers for the land for the common corridor. Now there is silence on that front. There has been also a negative impact of this reportage. The steel companies are now paying villagers to keep nosy strangers out of the place.
Rabi: When people were agitating against the common corridor and had staged a large demonstration in Baligoth village on March 30 the administration wanted to declare tribal leaders Rabi Jarika and Dabur Kalundia as wanted criminals, to be bumped off in an encounter. I got a tipoff and wrote about it. This rattled the administration and they denied any such plan. In every department - be it the Secretariat or the police force - there is surely at least one person who sympathises with the tribals and wants to help them in their struggle.
Do you think the media can really bring about change?
Prabhu: I think we can spread awareness and then people can make informed decisions.
Rabi: If the print and electronic media work together, a change can surely be visible in the society. Some sections of the media find that they are not able to make an impact due to the editorial policies of their bosses, but even they are often sympathetic about the tribals’ cause and give information to those newspapers that have the courage to speak up.
Does your salary suffice to run the family?
Prabhu: The money we receive as salary is a petty sum. Many journalists are also small time businessmen - most of them have shops, which take care of their household expenses. I am so involved in my work that I do not have time for any other work, although I stay at a rented place and have to constantly worry about expenses.
Rabi: I regard our editor as one of the most conscientious persons today. I look up to him with respect and he knows that. So when I had joined him, he told me that Aarambh was not a big newspaper and that they hardly get any ads. He said, ``So whatever salary I give you, please take it with a happy heart.’’ So even though my salary is low I am at peace and happy that I have the chance to work with him. I am proud to say that I work with such a man and his newspaper.
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