Despite a growth in readership, reporting events in Chhattisgarh is almost impossible because journalists are denied access to the interiors.
A police operation in the jungles of Timapuram (Chhattisgarh) lasts for six days affecting three villages and leaving an estimated 300 burnt homes, and killings and rape in its wake. A whole week after it ends, the first first-hand newspaper reports from the affected villages appear. Meanwhile the highest circulated newspaper in the state has already produced two graphic reports on the operation, including a photograph, without attribution and without a visit. Its version is totally different from that of the two reporters who have made it to the area.
The mobile phone-based citizen news service CG Swara says on March 18 that the state police and SPOs have attacked villages near Chintalnar in Dantewada district and have burnt many houses. The Hindu and Rajasthan Patrika reported on March 23 after visiting the villages that some 300 houses had been burnt, six, including commandos, had been killed, and three women raped. A fact-finding team of “Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations” released a report in Delhi last fortnight which said that in three villages two residents had been killed, 300 houses burnt, and three women raped. It listed the names of nine members of the Salwa Judum whom the villagers identified. All versions including a press note by the Maoists say that one Maoist was killed.
The Dainik Bhaskar, however, reported on March 16 there was a Naxal ambush in the Chintalnar area foiled by the the Koya commandos of the state in which more than two dozen Naxalites were killed. Much graphic description followed of the formations the jawans had assumed and the weapons they used to foil an attack in which three bureaus of Maoists were involved. On March 19, the paper reported (I am using the web version) that Maoists had burnt the bodies of 37 of their comrades. The headline said as much. Accompanied for good measure with a photograph of fires burning. The story said, “this was the biggest ever loss for Maoists so far. In addition to killing of 37 Maoists, 15 were injured seriously and 21 suffered minor injuries” (translated from Hindi). Welcome to journalism in Chhattisgarh.
A public hearing takes place on February 28 in the town of Dharamjaigarh in Raigarh on giving land to a power project for the coal mines it will require. Since it will swallow up six villages and half a town, more than 400 people attend it, all staunchly opposed to it. The Times of India, The Hindu and the Hindustan Times have reporters present and all report along more or less the same lines. From the TOI: “At a public hearing for a proposed coal mine on Monday, after seven long hours, the score ended at 438 versus none. 438 people spoke at the hearing. Not a single in support of the project.”
The Hindu describes this exchange: “Can you please tell me the name of the owner of this company?” insisted Abha Ekka, a post-graduate student, at a public hearing held this Monday in Chhattisgarh's Raigarh district. “I don't think it is relevant,” replied Additional District Magistrate, S.K. Sharma who was conducting the hearing for the acquisition of 693.32 hectares of land for a coalmine for DB Power Ltd.”
The Hindustan Times said the villagers thought several facts about the area had been deliberately excluded from the environmental impact assessment and grumbled that since it was in English they could not understand its contents. The English papers tell you baldly that the power company conducting the hearing is owned by the Dainik Bhaskar group.
Even before the public hearing there has been violence against this power company's offices by those opposed to the power project. Days before the hearing, Dainik Bhaskar carries a pageful of stories in favour of the project. Sample headline: “Kale hire se chamkegi, Dharamjaigarh ki takdeer”. (The black diamond will illuminate Dharamjaigarh's future.) It neglects to mention that it is owned by the same industrial group as the project, DB Power. Meanwhile, 11 local reporters in that district covering protests against the project have cases filed against them by the police. Welcome to journalism in Chhattisgarh.
For the title of ‘most difficult state to cover' Chhattisgarh has little competition. There is plenty that should make news, but a reporter needs access to the site of news to produce a story. That the police operations in the state effectively deny. Hardly surprising because this is a state where the police can also stop the District Collector from going to a site of reported arson, killing and rape as happened in March in Dantewada, the district where the operation described above happened. The Collector had to turn back, and when he tried to send supplies to the villages, the driver of the vehicle was beaten up, allegedly by the special police officers here. International press freedom organisations that issued two statements about journalism in Chattisgarh last month, did so from a distance after The Times of India among other newspapers wrote of the lack of access. When things happen, they happen in the jungles. If you want to take the roads that get there, they are blocked. The reporters who actually made it to the site of the police operation wrote that they did so through a forest route.
Free for all
Apart from the confrontation between the Maoists and the state, the generosity of the state in allocating land for industry has also fuelled considerable unrest. Many MOUs have been signed in Chhattisgarh. There are supposed to be public hearings and environmental impact assessments before clearances are given, but sometimes the project owners jump the gun and begin work. Reporting of violations? Doesn't happen. Reporting of opposition to the projects? Doesn't always happen. Why not? Because of both intimidation and inducements. A reporter willing to stick his neck out in Chhattisgarh will be dubbed a Maoist. Further, as one of them discovered some months ago, he stands to lose his job. The newspaper that employed him sacked him for his reporting, when the state government leaned on it, and the paper faced the prospect of losing government advertising. And inducements to not report, by companies trying to fend off protests against acquisition of land? They consists of plain cash, you are told off the record.
Journalism may be down, the media business is not. Two of the leading newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar and Hari Bhoomi are owned by power and coal interests in the state. New entrants continue to come in because both the government and industry have advertising to offer. The Rajasthan Patrika entered this state is September 2010, and partly to fend off the competition both Nai Duniya and Dainik Bhaskar launched Re. 1 variants of their paper before the Patrika's entry. Even without those there are six major Hindi dailies. The state has registered the fourth highest growth in readership among Hindi-speaking states over the last two years. So as far as the industry is concerned, why worry?