The draft Chhattisgarh Protection of Mediapersons Act, publicised early this month, will ensure “newsgatherers” are able to do their work without fear of being targeted for it, or so the Bhupesh Baghel government claims. But journalists in the state, especially those working in the violence-ridden Bastar region, argue that the proposed law will do little to shield them from harassment, not least because the Baghel government itself has a track record of going after adversarial journalists.
In its manifesto for the 2018 Assembly election, Baghel’s Congress party promised to enact a law to protect during the rule of BJP’s Raman Singh, particularly when the murderous state-backed militia was running amok. In the two and a half years since the Congress took power, however, the police have booked at least 35 mediapersons under the penal code, according to Praful Thakur, vice president of the Raipur Press Club, who has been a leading advocate for a law to protect journalists.
So, what is contained in the proposed law, and why are many journalists in Chhattisgarh not sold on it, even those who have campaigned for just such a piece of legislation?
Who does it protect?
The proposed law seeks to protect from harassment all mediapersons, including freelancers, bloggers, hawkers, stringers, cartoonists, translators, and newsagents who are “regularly involved in collecting and disseminating news, views or opinions”, or in “collecting and forwarding news to mediapersons or media establishments”. Government officials claim that it will protect not only journalists in the state but also those coming from outside. Also eligible for protection are “technical support staff, drivers, interpreters, Outside Broadcasting van operators and all other persons facing threats of harassment, intimidation or violence on account of their connection with the registered mediaperson”.
As punishment for harassing a mediaperson, it proposes a jail term of up to a year.
For a newsgatherer to be protected by the law, they must register with the Authority for Registration of Mediapersons, which will be formed by the government and comprise a senior official from the state’s public relations department and two journalists, at least one of whom must be a woman.
And for journalists, including freelancers, to be eligible for registration, they must, according to the , have “at least six published works” in as many months before they apply or been “paid thrice in the previous six months by a news platform”.
That “newsgatherers” include those who aren’t employed directly by news organisations is welcome. It is a common practice in India’s news industry to have poorly paid “stringers” not only gather news from small towns and villages, but also sell advertisement space and airtime. But these frontline newsgatherers often lack institutional support and are thus constantly at risk of harassment, or worse, by private interests and public authorities alike. Of course, for them to be eligible for protection under the proposed law, the news organisations they work for must acknowledge their services.
It’s similarly encouraging that the draft law covers translators and drivers. In Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi heartland, visiting journalists hire local people to guide them to remote hamlets and translate for them. And not rarely, after the reporter leaves, the interpreter is hauled up by local civil or police officials.
How does it protect journalists?
The draft law provides for a Committee for Protection of Mediapersons to oversee its implementation. It will be led by a retired high court judge and include the head of the public relations department, a police officer above the rank of additional director general, and four journalists, including a freelancer and a woman, each with at least 10 years of experience.
The panel will set up in each district a risk management unit, or RMU, envisaged as the primary forum to “assess the risk” faced by a journalist and draw up a protection strategy. RMU comprises the district collector, police superintendent, public relations officer, and two mediapersons, at least one of whom is a woman and each of whom has spent a minimum of seven years in the profession.
As per the draft, it’s “imperative” for RMU to prepare the protection plan with “due regard” to the mediaperson’s fundamental rights to free speech and expression, to freedom of association, to move freely, and to practise their profession. It is also essential that the strategy is drawn up, as far as possible, “in consultation with the person who needs protection”.
Why are journalists sceptical about it?
“No journalist reporting against the government can expect a just assessment from the collector or the SP as members of RMU,” argued seasoned journalist Kamal Shukla, because it’s often these very officials who target mediapersons.
Shukla, who runs a news platform called Bhumkal Samachar, speaks from personal experience. He was charged with in April 2018, when the BJP was in power, for sharing a cartoon on Facebook. In September this year, after he how a police-contractor-bureaucrat nexus was behind illegal sand mining in Kanker and sought the removal of Kumar Lal Chouhan as the collector for indulging in allegedly corrupt practices, Shukla was assaulted in public by sand mining contractors apparently associated with the Congress, along with fellow reporter Satish Yadav.
Shukla had gone to the Kanker police station to intervene on behalf of Yadav, who faced a complaint for reporting on the illegal mining. Soon, the contractors and their associates gathered outside the station. Fearing imminent violence, Shukla called Kanker’s superintendent of police, MR Ahire, who didn’t attend his call. The head of the Kanker police station, meanwhile, expressed his inability to ensure the safety of the reporters and told them to leave. As soon as they stepped out, by the assembled mob, dragged away, and beaten up.
Shukla, 53, went on a fast unto death to protest against the attack and the state’s inaction against the perpetrators. He only after the governor, Anusuiya Uike, assured him of justice on the ninth day.
Kamal Shukla runs a news platform called Bhumkal Samachar.
Ruchir Garg, media advisor to the chief minister, defended the inclusion of collector and district police chief in RMU saying it would ensure that decisions are made speedily. “Collector and SP are chief functionaries in the district. They have to be involved to take full responsibility and make quick decisions,” he added.
In case a journalist is harassed by members of RMU itself, the draft law does provide for the complaint to be moved to a neighbouring district’s RMU or to be overseen directly by the Committee for Protection of Mediapersons. However, given that government officials tend not to cross each other, it’s unlikely that merely shifting the complaint to another district would be an effective remedy.
Similarly, to ensure accountability, the draft law provides for penalising and punishing public servants who “wilfully neglect their duties”. Even private companies are liable to be penalised if an investigation by a deputy superintendent of police establishes it harassed a mediaperson. But, again, the effectiveness of such checks and balances will depend entirely on how strictly they are enforced.
And the authorities don’t always go after adversarial journalistics directly, Thakur pointed out. He should know. As the Raipur Press Club’s vice president, he was at the forefront of the protest by journalists against the attack on Shukla and Yadav. Two days after Shukla ended his fast and the protest was called off, Thakur was abruptly transferred by his news agency to Jashpur Nagar, a town in north Chhattisgarh about 460 km from the capital city. He later learned, Thakur claimed, that the government had pressured his employer to move him out. “Since the transfer I have been able to visit Raipur only twice,” he said.
Anil Mishra, a seasoned journalist in Bastar, agreed. “All governments, irrespective of the political party in power, are wary of journalists who don’t toe their line,” he said.
Mishra has not read the draft law in its entirety yet as it is available only in English so far. But he did not “feel very excited”, he added, when he learnt that it gave the power to protect journalists to the district’s collector and police chief.
“Bastar’s journalists walk this tightrope of being branded police informers or Maoist informers by the other side. The law thus leaves very little scope for journalists to write boldly if assessment of the threat and protection is left to district police officials,” he explained.
Journalists petition former chief minister Raman Singh for a law to protect mediapersons.
Pushpa Rokde, the only woman reporter in Bijapur district, Bastar, faces an extraordinary situation. The nationwide lockdown imposed by prime minister Narendra Modi early this year to contain the pandemic led to her newspaper, Prakhar Samachar, shutting down its Bijapur edition, leaving her jobless.
“I had met with an accident while out reporting and had to borrow fifty thousand rupees for treatment and to run my household,” she recalled. Having found no journalistic work for months and needing money, she accepted a job overseeing the construction of a road in a remote Bijapur village for two months. Barely a week into the job, on December 13, suspected Maoists put up a notice on a tree near the village threatening “the journalist” to stop the construction or face their wrath.
“The police will now send their men to beat up the villagers as is usually the case,” said a distraught Rokde, who has reported on police atrocities on Adivasis across Bijapur. “Will the new law be of help in this kind of a situation?”
The draft law does not mandate the protection committee to look into a complaint unless brought to it either by the affected journalist or another person. This is a problem, Mishra argued. By way of example, he cited the case of Abhishek Jha, the Chhattisgarh head of Punjab Kesari. Jha was jailed for a week after the police booked him under penal charges related to public acts of obscenity, extortion, and criminal intimidation for allegedly threatening over the phone the former Congress legislator Mahant Ramsundar Das, who was made chief of the state cow protection commission by Baghel’s government. Absurdly, the FIR on the basis of which Jha was arrested didn’t name anybody, let alone the journalist.
So, Mishra continued, unless the proposed law requires the police to take the matter to the committee before filing an FIR against a mediaperson, it will serve little purpose.
Garg, the media advisor, countered that this isn’t necessary. “After all, the journalist, or the union he is associated with, or his colleagues can bring it to the notice of RMU or the committee, which will act as per provisions of the bill,” he said.
In the end, however, Praful Thakur remarked, whether the proposed law actually helps protect journalists or not “boils down to the state’s intent”.