A growing number of incidents of violence against, and restrictions on, journalists in several parts of India over the past few months has caused concern at the national and international level. July was a particularly bad month for the news media: they confronted hostility and intimidation from the Army, the police, anti-social elements, and militant communal organisations in Delhi, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu.
While Delhi and Mumbai witnessed vandalism let loose by a mob of religious bigots at the premises of two news television channels, it was the Army that imposed severe restrictions on journalists in J&K.
In Orissa, the ongoing battle between owners of mines and industrial interests provided the background to physical attacks on journalists who dared to expose the clandestine operators and their exploitation of the poor and the marginalised.
Attempt to silence the media
In the evening of July 15, a mob allegedly belonging to Hindutva organisations stormed the office of the New Delhi-based TV Today network of the India Today group and vandalised whatever they could reach. The attack was in protest against the telecast of tapes showing “secret meetings” of a Hindutva organisation in which there were discussions on carrying out “terrorist attacks against meetings of Muslims.” Headlines Today, the news channel of the TV Today network, had telecast the video footage.
According to the channel, the video it telecast was extracted by investigation agencies from the laptop of one of the accused in the Malegaon blast case. The Cover Story of the latest issue of Frontline(“Militant route to Hindu Rashtra,” August 13, 2010) provides good insights into the whole episode.
The attackers, armed with sticks, were on the rampage for about 15 minutes, causing damage to glass windows, doors, and furniture. Some security guards and officials were injured. The attackers did not spare the police personnel. Although the TV channel's officials had prior information about the attack and had informed the police, the custodians of law and order were caught on the wrong foot.
Given the nasty circumstances, things could have gone much worse for those inside the building. It was clear that those who had set up the mob wanted to send a message to the news channel. Condemning the attack, the Editors Guild of India pointed out that such methods to try and silence the media would only backfire.
Even as the office of the Headlines Today was being attacked, Zee 24, another TV news channel in Mumbai, came under Shiv Sena attack for picking up the news.
It is well known that communalism and chauvinism of all shades are fiercely intolerant of criticism and dissent. Unless the state ensures that the fundamental rights in the secular Constitution, especially freedom of speech and expression, are meant to be enjoyed by all citizens, they will remain only on paper.
Restrictions on movements of media persons
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed its concern over reports that journalists are facing harassment in certain conflict-ridden States in India, notably Manipur and J&K.
In Manipur, where security forces are involved in a confrontation with several armed gangs, newspapers stopped publication in protest against the forced entry of three gunmen into a journalist's house on July 21 for questioning him about a newspaper report. The print media announced a cessation of publication until the government took action against the intruders.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the State Government had to seek the Army assistance after its efforts to control internal disorder among sections of people failed. The first thing the government did after the Army intervened was to impose severe restrictions on journalists. The officials followed it up by cancelling curfew passes issued to journalists and others. They also instructed the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) not to allow any mediaperson to move around. In some instances, cameras were seized. In protest, the media organisations suspended operations for a couple of days. The protest at a national and international level forced at least a partial relaxation of the restrictions on newsgathering.
Conditions in Orissa have been difficult for journalists wanting to report freely. According to a special report brought out by the Free House Speech, in the current year (2010) 12 cases of physical attacks on reporters, stringers, or photographers have been recorded. The report noted that “the most widely broadcast channels and the largest circulating daily are owned by powerful people. Given this reality, reporting the depredations caused by national and international business houses that have descended on the State to exploit its ample natural resources has become a perilous task.”
In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the police arrested on July 22 S. Manimaran, Editor, Dina Bhoomi, a Tamil daily, and his son, for publishing articles on the business misdeeds of quarry owners in their newspapers. All manner of grave charges were initially recorded on the basis of a complaint made by an association of quarry owners that the daily had published a series of news items, “false and misleading,” about their business. Illegal operations by quarry owners and the resultant loss of huge revenues to the State exchequer have been reported in the press from time to time. It took protests from several media organisations, and the intervention of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, to have the grave charges removed and the editor and his son released on bail. That the relief came the very next day after the arrest highlighted the efficacy of media solidarity in bringing to public notice high-handed actions by the police in violation of accepted norms and procedures and indeed respect for freedom of expression.
The rise in attacks on journalists in India is indeed a matter of concern. It is also heartening to see more and more journalists and their organisations venture into new areas of investigative journalism, even if they involve more resourcefulness, ingenuity, and risk to limb and life.