Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju has written to Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah stating that “the paramilitary forces and police in all States/Union Territories must…be instructed not to commit any violence on media persons, otherwise they will face criminal proceedings which the Press Council will launch against them.”

He added that he was writing to the Union Cabinet and Home Secretaries, to all Chief Ministers, to the Chief and Home Secretaries of all States, and to the Chief Secretaries of all Union Territories to the effect that “I am not going to accept violence on journalists by the police or paramilitary forces.”

In response, Mr. Abdullah said he understood the sentiment behind Mr. Katju's letter, but that the police “have never had the intention of targeting media personnel” and he regretted “the recent incident involving members of the media & the J&K police.” He proposed that “perhaps the time has come for the PCI…in consultation with states & the media fraternity” to frame “a code of conduct for the media while covering such situations.”

Emailed letters available with The Hindu show that the PCI chairman and J&K Chief Minister have been wrestling with the problem over the last week -- an unprecedented exchange that could lead to constructive measures safeguarding journalists who are increasingly exposed to risks to life and limb in several parts of the country.

Justice Katju had, in an earlier letter dated November 26 to Chief Minister Abdullah, raised the issue, citing reports in The Hindu and other newspapers about three journalists – Associated Press Television News videographer Umer Mehraj, and freelance photojournalists Yawar Kabli and Showkat Shafi – who were hospitalised after being allegedly beaten up by CRPF personnel while covering protests in Srinagar on November 25. He wanted to know what steps were being taken to ensure media freedom and safety.

“It is the duty of the Press Council under section 13 of the Press Council Act,” the PCI Chairman explained in his follow-up letter dated December 1, “to uphold the freedom of the press. A journalist while covering an incident is only doing his job. He is like a lawyer who defends his client. Just as a lawyer cannot be equated with his client, so also a journalist cannot be equated with the crowd. A lawyer may defend a murderer, but that does not make him a murderer. Similarly, a journalist is only doing his duty of conveying information to the public, and he enjoys the fundamental right of freedom of the media guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.”

Justice Katju said he did not accept the police version that the journalists could not be differentiated from the rest of the unruly mob of 300 to 400 youths hurling stones at the police which resulted in a lathi charge. “I am informed that the journalists had video cameras and other equipment, which clearly distinguished them from the rest of the crowd,” he wrote. “At any event, it is obvious that when a journalist is being attacked he is bound to tell the police that he is a journalist.”

Chief Minister Abdullah, in his reply, stated that “important lessons” could be learnt from the regrettable incident in Srinagar. “It is easy for us, sitting far away from the scene of the action, to suggest that the police should look for cameras to ascertain whether a person is a press person or not but in the heat of the moment with stones & tear smoke shells flying it is often impossible for the police to take the time to make a proper assessment. In the chaos I dare say a bag of stones & a camera bag would probably look quite similar. Even with the best of intentions mistakes will happen & we have to take steps to reduce the possibility of such mistakes.”

His suggestion was that “in order to avoid such situations arising again” it was not enough to just write to States and put the onus on them. In his view, “the responsibility rests on the states, the media but above all on the Press Council of India. Unlike a lot of other countries, including countries like the UK which protect the freedom of the press, there is a code of conduct for the media while covering such situations. We have no such code binding on journalists in this country. Perhaps the time has come for the PCI to frame such a code in consultation with states & the media fraternity. As a starting point may I suggest that journalists who wish to plunge in to crowds to get the perfect photograph should wear brightly coloured jackets/bibs so that they can be identified easily by the law enforcing agencies. Unless you take the initiative to make it easier to identify journalists/camera persons in such situations I'm afraid we will always run the risk of such mistakes happening again

In a follow-up e-mail later in the day, Mr. Abdullah said journalists themselves were not taking steps to protect themselves. After a similar incident last year, the State police had offered to purchase brightly coloured jackets with the word “PRESS” displayed on them, if the journalists' association would submit an appropriate design. While the association had then agreed, “since then neither the design not any other details were furnished to the police and the suggestion remained on paper,” said Mr. Abdullah's letter.

The J&K Chief Minister hoped that the PCI chairman would consider this suggestion as part of a possible code of conduct. He offered to have his senior police officers share the details with Mr. Katju, and looked forward to a meeting with him to discuss this and other related issues.

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