Bihar’s Open Secret: The Muzzling Of Free Press Since 1982

While I was leafing through some of the materials regarding press freedom, I got a news story dated back to September 4, 1982, on Washington Post. It was about the Bihar Press Bill of 1982 introduced by the then Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra. The bill had given the state government the authority to restrict publishing of ‘grossly indecent’, ‘scurrilous matter’ or one that was ‘intended for blackmail’.

Journalists violating the bill could land in jail for two years for the first offence. Thousands of newspapers across the country shut down in protest against what they called the ‘black bill’ or a ‘draconian law’. The bill was subsequently withdrawn after a year. Thirty-five years after that ‘draconian’ bill, Mishra admitted that he should not have introduced the Bihar Press Bill.

Over a period of time, governments around the globe have learnt a lot as to how to deal with the press. Earlier, they directly knocked it down with official circulars, notifications and bills. Now, they have imposed undeclared censorships – shrouded with intimidations and lure – ranging from ad cuts to luring people with MLC/MP tickets. Apart from this carrot-and-stick approach, there has been a new addition wherein a paid news is planted.

For example, the sarpanch of a local gram panchayat Chandan Kumar in Siwan district, Bihar was awarded the central government’s Nirmal Gram Puraskar for ensuring a high standard of cleanliness and improving village infrastructure in 2012. However, this wasn’t because of any actual good work but because Chandan Kumar would have journalists in his good books since he bought expensive advertisements. His award was withdrawn. This is the impact which the planting of fake news stories can actually have.

The undeclared censorship on a large section of media in Bihar is an open secret. The digital space more recently and some magazines in the recent past have been vocal about the muzzling of the press. A cover story by the Open magazine (April 2012) presented a well-researched study of the press in Bihar. The story started with the income tax raid on the JD (U) treasurer Vinay Kumar Sinha’s residential premises where Nitish Kumar used to live before he became the chief minister of Bihar. The story didn’t find much mention in most of the mainstream newspapers.

The Open magazine article talked about an Urdu journalist in length as to how he was removed from the position of a Chief Editor of an Urdu daily just because he wrote a piece in which a Muslim cleric was criticised for reciting Fatiha (Quranic verse) at the funeral of Manju Sinha, the wife of Nitish Kumar. He says in that Open magazine piece – “There is nothing wrong in a Muslim cleric reciting the Fatiha at the funeral of a Hindu. The only problem was that all other Muslim religious leaders had boycotted the funeral, as Nitish Kumar had turned it into a political event.” A Right to Information response revealed how there was a surge in the ad revenue of the Urdu daily from the state government after the Chief Editor was demoted.

I can give you the first-hand account of the incident because that journalist is my father. He had been the Chief Editor of the newspaper Pindar for more than three years before he was removed for writing that piece. He was demoted to the post of a Managing Editor and then after a few years, he lost that designation as well. He is still working with the newspaper but quite happy without any designation. When I ask him why he is happy without any position in the newspaper, he says, “I have had a lot of responsibilities as the Chief Editor, now I am free from such responsibilities.”

While this is an example of the muzzling of the press 10 years ago, it is not that the condition in which the media operates in Bihar has become any better.

Glorifying the state government is still completely normal in Bihar. These are the samples of the front page lead stories published recently in leading dailies:

Qaumi Tanzeem (April 22, 2018): “Tanaau aur takrao se bahar nikalne ki zarurat – Nitish” (It’s necessary to come out from the environment of tension and confrontation)
Qaumi Tanzeem (April 21, 2018): 2020 tak 1 crore naujawan hunar mand banenge – Nitish” (1 crore youngsters will acquire skills by 2020)
Qaumi Tanzeem (April 20, 2018): Reyasti hukumat ne ladkiyon ke liye khazana khola (The state government opens its exchequer for girls)
Pindar (April 21, 2018): 1 crore naujawano ko hunarmand banane ka nishana – Nitish
(Government aims to teach skills to 1 crore youngsters)
Dainik Jagran (April 26, 2018): Sadbhavna ke bigad rahe mahol se bahar niklen log – Nitish
(People should try to maintain social harmony)

A source from the Department of Information and Broadcasting told me on the condition of anonymity that chief minister Nitish Kumar was very angry at the way some newspapers carried the Ram Navami riots that had broken out in different districts. According to him, those who used the term ‘riot’ were reprimanded and even alerted that their ads would be halted. He told me this was the reason the matter was hushed up and some ‘praised’ the government for acting ‘sternly’ against the perpetrators.

The Chief Editor of the leading Urdu daily Qaumi Tanzeem, SM Ashraf Farid passed a front page story which glorified the Nitish Kumar government for its handling of the riots which took place during Ram Navami processions – ‘Chief Minister thwarted the communal conspiracy’.

However, the happenings suggest otherwise. For example, Arijit Shashwat, a 36-year-old BJP leader was not arrested for two weeks after leading the unauthorised Ram Navami procession which is believed to have led to communal violence. The entire fiasco resulted in a huge media outcry and government embarrassment.

What generally goes missing from media glare is the regular threat faced by journalists and the cold-blooded murder of some of the journalists in recent times. Fortunately, the murder of veteran Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh got widespread media attention. Unlike Hindustan journalist Rajdeo Ranjan, who was murdered in Siwan, home to India’s one of the most influential and notorious criminal-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin on May 13, 2016. In the same year, another journalist from Bihar, Dharmendra Singh was also shot dead in Sasaram in November. The murder of these two small-town journalists also found mention in a document released by UNESCO, which had been originally produced by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). However, the Indian media did not cover it as much as it should have.

Since ad revenues come from businessmen and politicians, many journalists prefer being in their good books. This makes it difficult for them to print all sorts of news criticising these bigwigs. Any journalist ‘crossing this limit’ may have to face the heat either from the proprietor’s side or from that of the politician.

In 2013, the then Press Council of India chairman Justice (Retd) Markandey Katju had sent a fact-finding team to Bihar which, after meeting with several journalists and state officials, alleged in its scathing report that free and fair journalism in Bihar was facing a situation of censorship. The committee had said that due to government pressure, newspapers in Bihar were downplaying issues like corruption and favouring the establishment in their news coverage.

The muzzling of the press has been a huge concern for over 30 years now in the state of Bihar. The state of Bihar has gone through a lot of socio-political and governmental changes since the Bihar Press Bill of 1982 was first introduced by Jagannath Mishra. However, irrespective of the political party which has been in power since then – Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal or the Janata Dal (United), not much has been done to ensure that journalism flourishes in the state as it should in the world’s largest democracy.

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