Defying censorship, the reporter who exposed the killings

Brahma Chellaney exposed the killings of young unarmed Sikh youths for a foreign news agency, and faced severe government harassment

June 10, 2013 02:45 am | Updated September 15, 2016 11:21 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Brahma Chellaney. File photo

Brahma Chellaney. File photo

In 1984, Brahma Chellaney was a 27-year old correspondent for the wire service, Associated Press . He had managed to defy the media blackout in the summer of 1984 to stay on in Amritsar, becoming the only foreign correspondent to cover Operation Blue Star.

His story, front-paged in major international publications like The Times of London on June 14 that year, reported that over 1200 people — militants, civilians and security personnel — had died during the operation. This was double the official figures. Mr. Chellaney also highlighted the ‘presence of sophisticated weapons’ in the arsenal of the militants.

But the second element which angered the establishment was the claim in the report that ‘several’ young Sikhs had been shot, with their hands tied behind their backs. The report quoted medical sources, who had conducted the post-mortem.

Mr. Chellaney’s report was used only in the foreign press, and AP claimed that given the censorship, it had taken steps to ensure that the report did not appear in Indian media. Similar reports were to be published in India Today and the Indian Express , among others, in the following weeks and months.

But the government was furious. It slammed preliminary charges of ‘sedition, inciting communal discord and hatred, and violating press censorship’ on Mr. Chellaney. The police issued a warrant, searched his home, and visited AP offices. His passport was impounded, and press credentials not renewed. The case went to the Supreme Court, which instructed the police not to arrest him but asked Mr. Chellaney to cooperate in the investigations. He was to remain on temporary bail through the period, but was subjected to over 35 hours of interrogation. He was pressured to reveal his sources, which he refused to do, citing journalistic ethics and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press.

There was a backlash, both domestically and internationally. The AP Managing Editors Association asked the government to ‘cease all proceedings, underway and contemplated’ against their correspondent, adding responsible Indian officials had corroborated the news dispatches. In an editorial, ‘Truth on Trial’, in October that year, The New York Times said Mr. Chellaney had ‘provoked displeasure by doing his job too well’, and what was at issue was not just ‘censorship, but vindictiveness’. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) protested the ‘continued harassment’ of Mr. Chellaney.

In September 1985, the government finally dropped the charges, and renewed Mr. Chellaney’s passport and press credentials. The New York Times lauded the decision, saying then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had written the ‘right ending’ to the case where Mr. Chellaney’s only offenses were ‘enterprise and accuracy’. Fresh revelations in a new documentary have only vindicated his story. He was travelling outside the country and did not offer comments on how he looked back at the episode, 29 years later.

Mr. Chellaney moved on from journalism to academia, and is now a well-known strategic affairs analyst.

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