A Meghalaya-based journalist was injured and his camera and mobile phone snatched when suspected timber smugglers assaulted him on the night of January 23.
Biplab Dey, 37, a freelance journalist who reports for Assam Tribune and other papers in Shillong from Garo Hills in the state’s western region, was on the trail of smugglers when he was assaulted around 10.30 pm in Athiabari, West Khasi Hills district.
Dey and his driver Dipen Rabha received injuries on the chest, hands, legs and back. “We were kicked and thrashed with sticks by a mob of about 25 people,” said Dey, who was following the smugglers in order to collect evidence of illegal transportation of timber from the Garo Hills to Assam. The culprits took away his camera, mobile phone and laptop to destroy evidence.
Although reports suggested the All Rabha Students’ Union was responsible for the attack on the journalist, Dey said he was not sure about the involvement of the students’ body. “I am not sure if they were involved, but the name of the mastermind of the attack is Sugriv Rabha,” he said.
He also alleged that the perpetrators were from Gamirimura village in Kamrup district of Assam. Dey has filed a complaint with the Athiabari police outpost.
The West Khasi Hills district has been witnessing timber smuggling through various routes for the past three years.
Press reports suggest that more than 31 journalists have been killed for doing their job in India’s northeastern states in the last 30 years. It is to be noted that Tripura, which goes to the polls on February 18, witnessed the deaths of two journalists last year – Shantanu Bhowmik and Sudip Dutta Bhowmik – but the incidents did not result in a unified protest from the national media fraternity.
Meanwhile, West Khasi Hills superintendent of police GD Kharwanlang said they were investigating the incident. “We have spoken to Dey. Action will be taken against the perpetrators,” he added.
Incidentally, this is not the first time when Dey has been obstructed from performing his duties as a journalist. On November 26, 2016, he was assaulted by a group manning an illegal check-gate near Damra in Assam’s Goalpara, where he had gone to take photo and video evidence.
Local media often highlights the matter of timber smuggling in the state.
In August 2017, there were reports of a group of three inter-state timber smugglers ferrying a truckload of pine logs from Shallang in the West Khasi Hills to Rongsai in Assam. The smugglers were caught by NGOs from the North Garo Hills district near Tekachang village in Resubelpara.
It may be mentioned that Dey in March 2016 reported the alleged involvement of officials of Garo Hills Autonomous District Council forest range in timber smuggling. He had then quoted the Centre for Environment Protection and Rural Development (CEPARD), which claimed to have conducted a sting operation to uncover the nefarious activities of forest officials of the ADC.
The CEPARD had pointed out that among the prominent smuggling routes for illegally transporting timber through West and North Garo Hills are Damal Asim, Raksamgre, Rongsai, Jengjal and Bajengdoba.
Meanwhile, the Meghalaya Electronic Media Association (MEMA) condemned the attack on the freelance journalist, stating that it considers the act an attack on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression of the press, as “journalists play a crucial role in enabling citizens to know what is happening around, to keep the public informed and to expose the misdeeds of the mighty and powerful”.
“MEMA urges the state police to take action urgently against the group which has been identified to have links with the All Rabha Students’ Union in order to help the press perform its duty without fear,” the association said.
Condemning the assault on Dey, Shillong Press Club president David O Laitphlang said: “Journalists will never be cowed down by such acts of cowardice.”
(This piece has been authored by Kyrmenlang Uriah, a Meghalaya-based journalist and member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)