By Arunima Singh:
Santosh Yadav, Prabhat Singh, Deepak Jaiswal, all journalists from the state of Chhattisgarh, are in prison. Their only crime appears to be their adherence to the basic values of journalism which is to report by speaking to all the relevant persons concerned with an issue, to highlight injustice and speak truth to power.
On 10th May, a protest demonstration was held at Jantar Mantar by the organisation Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti on the issue: alleged ill-treatment of journalists in Chhattisgarh. They also want a legislation to protect journalists working in the state.
According to the protestors present whom I spoke with, most local journalists reporting on important issues are either driven out of the region, or threatened and tortured with the entire government machinery working against them.
I spoke to Nitin Sinha, a journalist who has gone through such treatment, regarding this. He recalled how Umesh Singh Rajput and Sushil Pathak two other journalists were murdered for publishing news, just a couple of years ago.
Their alleged murderers are yet to be punished. “Journalists such as Saurabh Agarwal and Santosh Singh Rajput were jailed and later released for allegations which had no basis. Manoj Soni was beaten up by the police in the compound of his house and arrested in a false case. With the help of some NGOs, we managed to free him, but not all journalists are as fortunate. Many of them are on the run, having been charged under false allegations by the local administration. For reporting anything which might be unfavourable for the ruling party or the government officials, these journalists face all kinds of torture,” Sinha alleged.
I also spoke to Jagdish Kumar, another journalist allegedly facing the wrath of the authorities for covering the issue of human trafficking in the area. He narrated how a journalist could be allegedly framed in Chhattisgarh for a crime he was trying to report.
“I used to report about human trafficking in the area. I rescued a girl who was being sold off and freed her. Later, the police manipulated the same girl to allege that it was I who had tried to sell her off, and not the other way around. That is just how the system works there,” he claimed.
Jagdish Kumar is currently under investigation in the case and after his bail got rejected, has been declared an outlaw by the police, with several others. They are all on the run, or in the local parlance ‘farar’.
Sinha lamented that the alleged torture was not limited to local journalists who reported on certain issues. “You can go to Chhattisgarh from the capital, or from any other place. But if you speak up against the atrocities or the functioning of the government, you will face the same wrath. You will either be driven out of the state, or a false case will be registered against you. There is a local newspaper in Raigarh, Adivasi Stambh, which published an article about the local Mahila Vikas Committee collecting Rs. 200 from the poorest of families of the region during a ‘Vikas Yatra (Development Journey)’ of the Chief Minister. The journalists responsible for the piece were charged under sections such as ‘obstructing public servant in discharge of public function’ who were later denied bail, and since then have been declared outlaws by the police and administration.”
Saurabh Agarwal, another local journalist who had turned up at the protest site, was also put in jail for his reporting. “I was reporting about the exploitation of locals. The government had ordered the destruction of a woman’s house. She was to be paid Rs. 19 lakhs in compensation, which was not given to her. I was trying to record all of it on my phone when a senior officer came and seized it. He threatened me that if I reported on the issue, he would put me in jail which is what transpired later. I still haven’t gotten my phone back.”
Efforts are made to drive these people out of the area, or punish them if they don’t. In the face of relentless intimidation, Scroll.in’s contributor Malini Subramaniam left Jagdalpur, after continuously working against all these challenges to present the reality of the region.
Santosh Rajput discussed with me the treatment meted out to the journalists by the administration. “We are putting our lives in danger by reporting about such issues. For a report about the illegal felling of trees and the disregard by the government, we went inside these jungles and collected evidence. But no one took any action against the culprits. On the contrary, it was us who were questioned and humiliated, with all these officials asking us why we wanted to malign the government’s image,” he alleged.
He added that this was ‘disheartening’. “I often wondered why I was doing this. But I understand now that this is a struggle, and we have to be a part of this if we want things to change.” The journalists from Chhattisgarh also talked about the allegations against them such as being “sympathetic to Naxals” as well as “harbouring Maoist thoughts”. Organisations like ‘Samajik Ekta Manch’, allegedly backed by the local police and administration, also protest against them, often resorting to a violent display of their anger. Harassing the journalists and the people associated with them, damaging their property etc. is allegedly the usual procedure.