#Chhattisgarh: 4 BJP men held for assaulting journalist

An alleged assault on a journalist by BJP party workers last week spotlights the safety issues journalists face in Chhattisgarh.

ByVandana Agrawal
#Chhattisgarh: 4 BJP men held for assaulting journalist
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The challenges journalists faced during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 15-year rule in Chhattisgarh do not seem to have diminished. A fresh case of assault on journalists was reported last Saturday at the saffron party’s office in Raipur reported. Journalists were covering a review meeting called to analyse the BJP’s Assembly election defeat at the district level when one of them was assaulted by party workers as they recorded a brawl that had broken out among the workers.

According to a First Information Report (FIR) based on a complaint filed by Suman Pandey, a senior reporter for regional news portal thevoices.in, and his colleague Vinod Dongre, BJP district president Rajiv Agrawal along with party office bearers Vijay Vyas, Utkarsh Trivedi and Deena Dongre were involved in the assault.

Pandey says they were called to the BJP office at Ekatma Parisar in Raipur at 4 pm on February 3 to cover a review meeting. Pandey says: “I saw some manhandling between BJP members and started recording with my mobile. The BJP persons saw this and came towards me. There were four of them and they started hitting me. They were asking me to delete the video and snatched my mobile and deleted the video. They kept me hostage for 20 minutes.” He told his colleagues about the incident after stepping out of the BJP office.

Accused released on bail

BJP district president Rajiv Agrawal, the main accused, said the allegations were “unfortunate”. Claiming the BJP has always respected journalists, Agrawal said that on Saturday, all the journalists were asked to leave after the meeting, but one did not move. According to Agrawal, “He was sitting there making videos and was sending (those) to someone. When asked for [his] identity card, the journo said he doesn’t have one. When BJP members requested him to delete the video, he refused.”

After a persistent protest by journalists outside the BJP office in Raipur, the four accused were arrested late Saturday night under Sections 342 ( wrongful confinement), 506 (criminal intimidation), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. They were later released on bail. The journalists continued to demonstrate outside the Raipur Press Club through Sunday. Journalists in other parts of the state also added their voices in asking for a safer atmosphere for scribes. The protestors have said the agitation will continue until the accused BJP members are suspended from the party.  

Suman Pandey, the journalist allegedly assaulted by BJP workers, at the protest.

The participating journalists also claim they were threatened by youth-wing members of the BJP who told them not to hold demonstrations against the party on the issue, those who participated in the protest claim.

Devesh Tiwari, a video journalist with Zee News Chhattisgarh, sits in protest at the Press Club. He criticises the BJP for not having taken any action even 24 hours after the attack on Pandey. “No culprit has been terminated yet. BJP party president Dharamlal Kaushik and [former CM] Raman Singh have to decide whether they are with three-four goon-like party workers or with journalists. We will protest this act of the BJP.”

Mamta Lanjewar, a TV journalist who was covering the incident, alleges that BJP members shoved and misbehaved with women journalists as well on Saturday. She says: “We will continue the protest. Not only journalists, but democracy is in danger. We are fighting against an attack on freedom of expression. Even a woman journalist was held by her hand and dragged out. If we are not safe at the BJP office between public representatives, then where are we safe?”

High hostility state

Looking at the last couple of decades, Chhattisgarh has turned into a hostile state for journalists to report from. From the Naxalism-hit belt of Bastar to the mining belt of Sarguja, more than 200 journalists—an unofficial figure put together by those campaigning for a safety law—in the state have faced threats, violence, legal abuse and even death because of their work. At times, they’ve been labelled “Naxals” when they report from the ground in Bastar. On February 12 2013, Bastar journalist Nemichand Jain was shot dead by Maoists, even as the government considered him a Maoist supporter.

New York-based Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in 2016 had expressed its concern over deteriorating climate for the press in Chhattisgarh. The organisation even wrote to then chief minister Raman Singh, asking him to ensure a safer working environment for journalists, but never received a response.

Raipur-based journalist Rupesh Gupta highlights the oppression of fierce voices like Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh and claims “this is the unveiling of the basic character of fascist forces”.

Sanjeev, a journalist who has reported from Chhattisgarh for about 15 years, says journalism has “suffered a lot” in the state. He says journalists are employed and terminated at the whims of the government. “The BJP government and its officials had assumed they can do anything with power and money. They have to keep themselves aware of the fact that they are out of power now,” says Sanjeev.

The BJP’s Raipur office witnessed another altercation between journalists last week when the party’s central leaders accused journalists of being “Congressmen” during a press conference. As journalists protested, the BJP claimed the issue was being “politicised”.

Journalists’ safety law

Over the last 15 years in Chhattisgarh, a committee for the safety of journalists was set up. However, only one meeting was conducted during a span of two years.

In March 2016, when a fact-finding team of the Editors Guild of India visited Bastar, they found media reports of threats to scribes to be true. The team observed that journalists in Chhattisgarh were under the attack of both state and non-state actors, and were working under great pressure.

There are numerous stories. In 2016, Prabhat Singh, a Dantewada-based scribe working for Hindi daily Patrika, was booked under Section 67 and 67A of the IT Act for a Whatsapp comment about a Bastar police officer. In 2015, journalist Santosh Yadav was jailed for 17 months when the Bastar police, based on a statement by STF commander Mahant Singh, booked him for “associating with a terrorist organisation”. Yadav alleges it was a false case.

In 2018, Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla—who had recently taken out a demonstration seeking a law to ensure the safety of journalists—was booked for sedition for sharing on social media a satirical on BJP office-bearers’ reactions to Justice Loya’s death. He says nearly 250 cases were registered against journalists and human rights activists during the BJP regime in the state. “BJP members are still thinking it’s their government. They have the habit of coaxing journalists to work as per their desires. A journalist safety law is urgently needed as was promised before the polls by the Congress,” says Shukla.

Amit Jogi of the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh agrees. Jogi also says strict action should be taken against those who manhandled the journalists. “It shows the BJP workers’ irritation,” he says.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel says his government will not tolerate such incidents. “Regarding the safety of journalists, I repeat my commitment. Our government is moving ahead for making a journalist safety law.”

(Vandana Agrawal is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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