Neeraj Shivhare, a journalist in Chhattisgarh, has been served a showcause notice for reporting on the plight of a woman who had to sell her fridge to buy rations. The notice denounces his reporting as “a punishable offence” and threatens him with an FIR.
On April 25, Shivhare, who is based in Geedam, Dantewada, ran the story of Mayuri Sharma on his website . The story, headlined “Helpless homemaker had to sell appliances to buy rations, administration didn’t help”, includes a video of the woman explaining her ordeal.
Mayuri’s husband, a bus driver, has been out of work since the coronavirus lockdown began last month, leaving the family of four without a source of income. The family didn’t have money to even buy food rations, Shivhare’s story goes, so Mayuri sold household appliances. She started off by selling “small items”, but was eventually forced to sell her refrigerator as well.
"I didn't have any rations at home so I had to sell the fridge for Rs 2,000,” Mayuri is heard saying in the video. Her family hasn't received any help from the government, she adds.
Shivhare’s story was picked up by fellow local journalists, and published in outlets such as Jandhara Samachar.
The next day, Shivhare got the notice from the sub divisional magistrate of Dantewada. Claiming his report is a “misleading post based on incomplete and incorrect information”, the notice declares, “The whole nation is dealing with the pandemic and publishing such posts can create an atmosphere of fear in the public. The post has damaged the image of the administration, therefore this action of yours has disregarded the order of administration and comes under the category of punishable offence."
The magistrate also threatens to file an FIR against the journalist, and summons him to provide an explanation.
Turns out, it’s the magistrate’s notice that’s based on incorrect information, not Shivhare’s story. Mayuri told Newslaundry that she indeed had to sell her fridge because she didn't have enough food to feed her family.
"My baby is eight months old and I cannot feed him mother's milk. And I didn't even have money to buy milk for him. That's why I had to sell my fridge,” she said. “We had bought the fridge for Rs 9,500 but had to sell it for just Rs 2,000. We didn't have an option. In the initial days of the lockdown, the administration twice provided four-five kg rice and some potatoes and onions. But that didn't last us even a week.”
Mayuri’s husband said as much. "We can live on bare minimum food but my son is just eight months old. When he doesn't get milk, he cries. I am a bus driver. I would earn Rs 370 a day, but I have been without work for a month. Whenever I get some work as a porter now, I take it. I get Rs 100 a day,” Charan Sharma told Newslaundry. “I overheard some people in the market making fun of us for selling our fridge to buy rations. Some said I had sold it for alcohol. I don’t know how long we can carry on like this, how long we will survive without work.”
It was only after Shivhare highlighted her plight, Mayuri said, that she received help from the local administration. “I thank Neeraj ji,” she added. “It's only because of him that I received rations and milk. Milk was sent for my baby from Jagdalpur.”
Asked why his administration was hounding a journalist for simply doing his job, Dantewada’s sub divisional magistrate, Lingraj Sidar, said, “We issued the showcause notice for two reasons. He had published a report previously about a woman treating coronavirus and for this story he didn't take our quote. Two rations kits were given to the woman’s family but it wasn’t mentioned in the report. Also, the woman’s husband told the tehsildar they sold their fridge because it had some technical problem."
He continued, "We provided the rations immediately after the story was published. We don't have a problem with a journalist publishing a report, but they should call us for our side of the story. The administration is working relentlessly in these times and such reports will definitely create distrust within the public. We are happy that journalists are bringing our attention to such issues but at least they should call us to know our side as well.”
Shivhare rejected the allegations. “We did mention a woman treating coronavirus in one story, but we wrote that we don’t believe in such superstitions,” he said. “In this particular story, everything was very clear. The woman was telling her story on video. There is nothing misleading and fake about this story."
Shivhare said he will appear before the magistrate as directed, but didn’t say when.
Sumit Sengar, another local journalist who spoke with Charan on camera on April 25, also rejected the magistrate’s claims. “He did mention that there was some problem with defreeze function of the fridge but that wasn’t their reason for selling it,” Sengar said. “They sold it because they needed milk for the kid and rations.”
Independent media is on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, reporting from the ground and asking hard questions that need answers. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today, and pay to keep news free.