Right-wing Groups Threaten Freedom of Press

Right-wing Groups Threaten Freedom of Press

As one journalist in Mangalore put it: “We are soft targets.”

By Prajwala Hegde

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In the last week of January this year, four members of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threatened Sharath D Kanthavara, a reporter with Mangalore-based evening daily Sanjevani. He was told there would be dire consequences to a report of what they construed as a slight. 

The 23-year-old had filed a story the day before about a fundraising event organised by members of the BJP, Congress and other parties. In his story, he had not mentioned the names of the four BJP members. Kanthavara tried to explain that there were simply too many attendees to name them all, but the BJP members weren’t mollified.

“They were not just hurling abuses at me, but also tried to beat me. Since my friends were there with me, I escaped,” Kanthavara said. The same night, at midnight, he filed a complaint at the local police station. He withdrew the complaint soon after the BJP members apologised to him. The incident went unnoticed in the media. 

Kanthavara’s case is far from solitary. In fact, it’s the norm for news outlets in this area, which have been fighting an uphill battle trying to report freely and without interference. Hindutva politics arrived in the coastal region as early as the 1950s, but is believed to have gained a foothold during the 1990s, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gained ground. With the BJP forming the government in Karnataka in 2008, Right-wing groups made their presence more evident. Ever since, there have been numerous attacks on people who oppose their ideas and ideologies.

As per 2011 Census data, 69 per cent of Mangalore’s population is Hindus, while Muslims and Christians were minorities at 17 and 13 per cent respectively. According to the Registrar of Newspapers’ data, there are 295 different publications (daily, weekly & fortnightly) in the Dakshina Kannada region.

Sixty-year-old BV Seetaram’s Chitra Publications, which runs newspapers such as the Karavali Ale, Kannada Janataranga and The Canara Times in Mangalore and Karwar, has seen many such incidents since its inception. Over the years, the editorial staff of Karavali Ale have been threatened, physically assaulted, and intimidated for exposing the roles of Right-wing activists in incidents of communal violence in the coastal town. Seetaram said their printing press has also been vandalised a few times. 

Seetaram was even arrested on two different occasions. The first time was in March 2007 for allegedly “promoting religious hatred” through an article. He had criticised the decision of a popular Jain monk to participate in a public procession naked, outraging the Jain community. The second time, Seetaram was detained by the Udupi police in 2009 over a two-year-old defamation case. No First Information Report had been filed and Seetaram spent a month in jail. The High Court later ruled that his detention was illegal and slapped a fine of Rs 10, 000 on the four arresting police officers and the Home Secretary. 

In 2013, two of Karavali Ale’s staff members were attacked following a report they published about inflammatory speeches made by Bajrang Dal leader Satyajit Surathkal.

Even newspaper vendors and circulation agents that display or distribute the paper have not been spared by Right-wing groups.

Several local reporters who spoke to 101Reporters on condition of anonymity, expressed concern over reporting anything that is remotely related to Hinduism or Right-leaning political groups. They claimed that incidents such as Kanthavara’s often go unreported because local reporters have little support or clout. “Reporters with bigger media houses are fairly safe,” one said. “Even though we are small, our news reports are powerful as they reach the locals who matter. So we become soft targets,” said another.

The failure of the police and state administration in protecting local reporters has given those intimidating the press a free hand.

“Hindu activists threatening reporters are so common that I have started avoiding reporting about them and their activity,” said a reporter from a local daily. “Even the police are of no use. They, in fact, round up journalists and also name them in FIRs if they were found at the spot of violence.”

Unfortunately, neither the office of the Superintendent of Police in Mangalore, nor journalist’s associations in the state have tracked the number of attacks on journalists over the last five years.

“Except for one or two big incidents, for which we have registered a complaint, there are not many instances that’s brought to our notice. The police is not under the pressure of any political party. We will take action, irrespective of who the offender is,” Dakshina Kannada Superintendent of Police, Bhushan Gulabrao Borase maintained. 

Seetaram doesn’t agree. He said that even when the police file FIRs and go to court, the prosecution is so weak that it has never resulted in a conviction and many newspaper agents are scared to report or even corroborate such incidents.

Local journalists allege that it’s not just the Hindutva league, but also conservative Muslim groups that are easily offended by the media and quick to resort to threats and physical attacks.

In July 2012, 31-year-old Naveen Soorinje, a journalist with a Kannada news channel Kasturi Newz 24 covered an attack by the Hindu Jagarana Vedike (HJV) on a group of boys and girls celebrating a birthday party in a homestay in Mangalore. Widely known as “the homestay attack,” Soorinje and his cameraman Seetharam were arrested in November, along with 43 others, and charged with conspiracy, rioting and unlawful assembly. “Instead, he was charged with the same offences as that of the attackers,” wrote Sudipto Mondal, a reporter with The Hindu, in a petition addressed to the Karnataka Home Minister R Ashok titled ‘Release Naveen Soorinje and drop all charges against him!’

They were released on bail after spending five months in jail. 

Indicating the intolerance to the way in which news is reported, Soorinje cited a case from Udupi, where a 24-year-old HJV activist, Ankit Poojary, threw stones at a mosque and stabbed two Muslim auto rickshaw drivers, one of whom one was killed. “If I write about this incident with the given details alone, it won’t be an issue,” he said. “But if I were to analyse further and write a story on the background of these attackers, who are either Dalits or from other lower castes such as Poojary (a sub-sect of Billava community of Dakshina Kannada district), and how they are brainwashed to commit such crimes, I will be questioned by these Right-wing groups.” 

On being asked whether he ever sought police protection, Soorinje said, “How many times can I go to the police to file a complaint?” He was once openly threatened by the head of the Sri Ram Sena in a press conference. 

Mondal, who had reported on communal violence in Mangalore for The Hindu, told us that he had been physically attacked by Hindu fundamentalists at least thrice. “I started carrying an air pistol just to intimidate my attackers,” he said. “I was once followed by three miscreants and when I stopped and took out my pistol, they fled. That fake pistol saved my life on that occasion.”

On police threats, Mondal vividly remembers the September 2008 incident when the then Superintendent of Police P Sateesh Kumar threatened to shoot him when he tried taking pictures of protesting nuns who were caned by the police.

In 2012, VT Prasad, who reported for the Karavali Ale, was attacked by around 30 Popular Front of India members, supposedly because of a piece he wrote about a Muslim widow, Aleema, appealing for financial aid. The attacker’s argument was, “Why should a Hindu man help a Muslim woman?” 

In May 2015, Mangalore Police registered a case against Mysuru-Kodagu member of Parliament Prathap Simha after Shreyas HS alleged that the BJP leader had threatened him over the phone. Sukesh Kumar, of Suvarna News, was allegedly threatened by BJP candidate Nalin Kumar Kateel. In September 2016, four journalists were assaulted and manhandled at Sooralpady mosque in Bajpe while on their way to talk to the mosque authorities.

With such fringe elements effectively dictating the direction of the coastal media, agenda-based publications that cater to audiences of different religious groups are mushrooming. These include Bhatkally.com, Siasat.org, and Varthabharati.in

We reached out to organisations like the VHP and Bajrang Dal who declined to comment.

Article 19 (1) (A) of the Constitution ensures freedom of speech, “The question is, who decides what is permissible or not? Is it the local right wing goon or the Chief Justice of India?” asked journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

The Press Council of India chairman Justice (retired) Chandramouli Kumar Prasad has been urging the Centre to enact a law to protect journalists and ensure a speedy trial of cases relating to attacks on the media-persons. 

“What you read in the newspapers is just the tip of the iceberg. A Muslim boy and a Hindu girl can’t be seated next to each other in a bus even by accident. There are hundreds of such cases of moral policing, but the mainstream papers won’t even report it most of the times,” Seetaram cautioned.  “Even with the Congress government in State, things are no different.”