It is a matter of shame that instead of being celebrated, Naveen Soorinje, who followed journalism’s best traditions in reporting the attack by Hindutva vigilantes in Mangalore earlier this year, is now languishing in jail
Had it not been for 27-year-old Navin Soorinje, a reporter with Kasturi Channel Newz 24 in Mangalore, and footage that he so generously shared with other channels, India would never have seen the images of what transpired behind the closed doors of “Morning Mist” homestay in Mangalore on the evening of July 28 this year.
It was a brutal attack that a group of self-appointed arbiters of societal mores belonging to the right-wing Hindu Jagarana Vedike let loose on an unsuspecting gathering of young men and women at the homestay. The appalling images of marauding hooligans mercilessly beating young men, and slapping, stripping and molesting women constitute a very strong body of evidence to proceed against the culprits. At what point the Mangalore police arrived on the scene is not clear, although there are several media reports quoting witnesses as saying that the police were present even as the attack was taking place, or were at the very least aware of the commotion going on, and could have intervened much earlier. On this matter, please see: Deccan Herald, The Hindu, The Hindu.
Having received a tip-off from a reliable source about a volatile gathering outside the homestay, Mr. Soorinje rushed to the spot with a cameraman. He recognised Subhash Padil, a prominent leader of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike. When he realised the motives of the gang, he tried several times to alert the jurisdictional police from the venue. When he failed, he alerted a counterpart from another channel, who also tried to call the jurisdictional police. No, he did not throw himself physically into the fight. That would have been foolhardy given the numbers against him. He did what any journalist would do in such a situation — he got his cameraman to film the outrage. Mr. Soorinje informed his colleagues of the attack and shared his footage with anyone who asked. In fact, the attack was first aired on a rival channel.
It therefore came as shock to Mr. Soorinje that his name was included in the First Information Report, dated July 28, as a participant in the attack. The charge sheet, filed on September 20, invokes sections of the CrPC that related to offences such as “rioting with deadly weapons,” criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly, and using criminal force on a woman with the intention of outraging her modesty. It also invokes Sections 3 and 4 of The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986.
After the charge sheet was filed on September 20, Mr. Soorinje applied for anticipatory bail in the JMFC 3rd court. The application was to be heard on November 15. However, as he was arrested on November 7, Mr. Soorinje filed for bail the following day. The JMFC 3rd court rejected his bail application on November 17.
High Court stays case
Meanwhile, Mr. Soorinje had applied for a stay on the proceedings of the case in the High Court in Bangalore. The stay was granted on November 19. On the strength of this, Mr. Soorinje filed another bail application in the JMFC 3rd court which came up for hearing on November 20. He was produced handcuffed in court, in violation of the Supreme Court guideline that forbids the handcuffing of under-trials. The JMFC 3rd Court then asked the High Court for a “clarification” on the stay order. The High Court vacated the stay on November 21. Mr. Soorinje then filed for bail in the First Additional District and Sessions Court in Mangalore, and on November 27 that court too denied him bail.
Two of the four journalists who covered the homestay attack have been charged with the same offences as the criminals they so bravely exposed. Of them, only Mr. Soorinje is in jail, and has been denied bail.
There are several disconcerting elements in the case against Mr. Soorinje.
First, there is evidence from the phone records of the jurisdictional sub-inspector that he received two phone calls from Mr. Padil, leader of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, one before and one after the attack. This in itself may not prove collusion. Yet, Mr. Padil himself subsequently boasted to the media that he had alerted the police about “immoral activities” going on in the homestay and when they failed to act, he decided to enforce his own justice on the guests at the party.
Second, the case against Mr. Soorinje hangs on the evidence of Mr. Vijay Kumar, the organiser of the get-together and the only complainant. In his original complaint to the police, Mr. Vijay Kumar told a press conference, he had only referred to “activists of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike” as the perpetrators, with no names. In the FIR that formed the basis of the charge sheet, the names of the attackers appear, along with Mr. Soorinje’s. Mr. Kumar alleged that the police had made him sign a blank sheet of paper on the night of the attack.
Third, in their charge sheet the police claimed Mr. Soorinje was “absconding,” even though he appeared three times before the investigating officer after the FIR was filed, even completing a 42-point police questionnaire with details of the incident. Further, he attended the first press conference held on November 19 by the new Commissioner of Police, Mangalore. He was constantly in public view, reporting live from various places. He was also issued a press pass by the Commissioner of Police that allowed him to cover a programme featuring the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi.
What does all this tell us? A police force that wishes to silence a conscientious journalist? A State government that cares little for the freedom of speech? A media community so complacent that it does not rally in support of a colleague who has become the victim of an obvious miscarriage of justice?
Naveen Soorinje chose to stand up for journalism’s best traditions, and it is a matter of shame that instead of being celebrated he has been jailed.