India fell to the 142nd position out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index this year and every day serves as a grim reminder of the disgracious dive. The latest comes from the Northeastern state of Tripura where on September 12, a journalist, Parashar Biswas, a local correspondent for a Bengali newspaper Syadin Patrika, was by unidentified men suspected to be supporters of chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb's Bharatiya Janata Party.
The injured journalist was taken for treatment to a hospital in Agartala and an FIR was filed at Ambassa police station accusing multiple unidentified people of violence leading to injury, obstruction and forceful entry.
It all began a day earlier when Biplab Kumar Deb, in a barely veiled threat, told off the state’s “over-excited” media. , in his address at the inauguration of a Special Economic Zone in Sabroom in South Tripura, the chief minister said, “Neither history nor I will ever forgive them (media). I am Biplab Deb and history stands witness that I am a man of my word.” This was in response to the series of criticisms raised by the media against Deb and his government’s handling of the pandemic situation in the state.
Biswas, in response to the chief minister’s warning to the media, went live on Facebook. During the broadcast, : “If the CM continues making such remarks, I will continue criticising him over Facebook and other social platforms because he has hurt the profession that brings food to my table. BJP may rule for more 10-15 years in Tripura but, his (Deb's) days in power are numbered.”
In fact, on the day Biswas was assaulted, another Belonia TV journalist, Ashok Dasgupta, was also manhandled by locals while covering a drinking water crisis in Matai.
It is important to note that Deb’s ultimatum to the media came at a time when a three-member team from the Centre had arrived in Tripura to assess and report on Covid-related conditions in the state. With more than 19,000 recorded cases of the virus, 200 deaths, and a lack of hospital beds, the Tripura government has been under the scanner for a while, especially after September 11 when the high court took suo moto cognizance of the plight of Covid patients in the state.
The BJP-led government was to submit an affidavit by September 18, including a detailed break-up of treatment centres, and the infrastructure, medicines, workforce and funds available to fight Covid-19.
A day after Deb’s remarks, the Tripura Assembly of Journalists, a forum for the protection of journalists, accused the state government of stifling the voices of journalists by creating an atmosphere of fear in the media. The forum’s president and editor of a local newspaper, Subal Kumar Dey, said, “We condemn these anti-democratic and unconstitutional comments from the CM. We have requested him to withdraw his comments within three days. Journalists are being attacked in different parts of Tripura. This has to stop. The CM should withdraw his comments or we shall write to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the Press Council of India, Tripura Governor RK Bais, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Editors Guild, media organizations, etc seeking recourse.”
A day later, the West Tripura District Administration to Dainik Sambad, a regional daily, asking for evidence supporting its critical report on the pandemic situation in the state.
The chief minister’s office, meanwhile, rubbished the allegations of the state government stifling press freedom claiming Deb’s comments were “taken out of context” and that his government is committed towards press freedom and media rights.