Journalists defend their right to report: ‘We were targeted for doing our job’

Attack on scribes and JNU students at the Patiala House Court has got them together after a long time.

WrittenBy:Manisha Pande
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A perennial grouse among journalists about journalists is that we’re a self-serving lot. We never stand up for members of our own fraternity. We talk about problems that cripple all and sundry, but never about the injustices that we face. Mass layoffs in the organisation? You won’t see journalists rallying against it. No action on a case of sexual harassment? You’d rarely find scribes coming together to demand it. Journalists being harassed for reporting in Chhattisgarh? It comes with the job profile. Reporter shot dead last week? It’s UP, yaar.

Something seems to have shaken off this apathy for our own after Monday when mediapersons along with students and teachers from the Jawaharlal Nehru University were beaten up inside the Patiala House Court Complex. First-hand accounts of journalists working with organisations like NDTV, Economic Times, Indian Express, Catch, IANS and so on have now come out detailing the sheer senselessness with which they were targeted. Yesterday, in solidarity with those who were attacked, journalists from across news organisations gathered to protest and defend in unison their right to report.

“I haven’t seen journalists get together in such numbers since the 80s’ agitation against the Bihar Press Bill that aimed to quell press freedom and 1992 when reporters were attacked in Ayodhya during the Ram Janambhoomi movement,” said a journalist working with DNA. This was a common refrain among most journalists who were pleasantly surprised at the crowd gathered at the Press Club of India to march towards the Supreme Court in protest.

So what got us to come together? Is it because it happened in Delhi? Or because journalists in mainstream English TV channels and newspapers were attacked? Or because it happened inside a court of law? All these may be contributing factors but it would be simplistic to argue it’s solely because of these reasons. To understand the show of strength and support all you need to do is listen to what transpired inside the courts yesterday: Journalists were simply beaten up for reporting. “We’ve been called presstitues, paid media and what not. But this is beyond name calling. We were targeted for doing our job, for reporting,” said a journalist working with an English daily.

Amit Pandey, special correspondent, IBN7 News, said he has been covering the High Court since six years and has never witnessed anything like this. “…ruthlessly they [journalists] were beaten. There was no differentiation between male and female [journalists].” Pandey said nine journalists filed a complaint on Monday but the police is yet to take action. “…this is the police. We’re just a handful. This is the system, we can’t do anything.”

NDTV reporter Sonal Mehrotra, who was also present at Patiala Court, said she thought for a minute that she was not going back home alive. “I was up against a wall, my only friend from IBN7 was being beaten up…there were 15 men literally hungry for blood who were standing out there and telling me ‘madam delete kariye video, warna pehele aapka phone todenge, phir aapki haddiyan todenge’.” Mehrotra said she called out to cops who refused to help.

Ritika Jain from DNA said she had got into a heated debate with some “lawyers” because they were trying to throw them out of the court. “We told them if the judge tells us to go, we will go. But the lawyers are no one to tell us to leave,” she said, adding that there was a lawyer who was smoking inside the courtroom, and asked her for her phone to see if she had recorded any of the violence that took place.

Most journalists we spoke to were not sure whether the mob comprised lawyers or just goons dressed as lawyers. Many of them also ascertained that there was no provocation from their side – when the mob first started attacking people who “seemed” like they were from JNU, journalists took out their phones to capture what was happening, which is when they became targets. Azaan Javaid, also with the DNA, said women were abused — some of them were called prostitutes.

Sneha Aggarwal, reporter with Mail Today said, “She was too scared to file an FIR.”

Listening to these testimonies, it’s easy to understand the outrage among the journalist community. To accept the incident without a whimper would mean we’re okay with not being allowed to do our job. Rajdeep Sardesai, who hosts News Today at Nine on India Today, said journalists have started to feel they have become soft targets. “Journalists at the court were telling a story…what was the crime of any of those journalists?”

Jyoti Malhotra agreed saying journalists have been feeling for some time that their right to report a story has been curbed. Malhotra said this wasn’t a question of ideology. “I am not getting into whether Right is wrong or Left is right…government is using the debate around nationalism to tell you whether what you want to write is correct or not.”

Delhi-based journalist Poornima Joshi, who covers the Bharatiya Janata Party, stated that there is a marked difference between the current BJP and the BJP under Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee. “You ask them questions [now], they get defensive and offensive, this is not an isolated incident, this is part of a pattern, which is why I am here.”

For now, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a plea today seeking action against those who attacked journalists. The news was greeted with loud cheers from journalists, even as they were not allowed to march up to the Supreme Court. (Delhi Police had barricaded the way.) A memorandum was also submitted to the Supreme Court Registrar, asking for the cancellation of licences of lawyers involved in the assault. Some journalists even demanded the sacking of Delhi Police Chief BS Bassi.

It’s not certain if all their demands will be met but what’s important is that for a brief while journalists got together to fight for something that’s indispensable to democracy: a free press. There may be many things wrong with the media but speaking truth to power is not one of them.

NDTV’s Ravish puts it succinctly asserting that ordinary people, more than journalists, should be bothered about the attack on journalists: “…agar darpok patrakaar hoga, toh aap apne drawing room main ek mare hue aadmi ki tarah rahenge.


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