On September 24, Samir Kanti Debnath and Suman Nag, local TV news reporters in Tripura’s Belonia, some 90 km from the capital Agartala, went to cover an incident of political violence at Barpathari market.
Debnath, who works for Duranta TV, and Nag, who reports for TV 24 and the newspaper Pratibadi Kalam, saw a shop being ransacked and started filming. They were soon confronted by the vandals, allegedly supporters of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, who told them to delete the footage. The journalists refused.
“They started assaulting us and tried to snatch our cameras,” Nag recalled. “The assault continued until we contacted senior police officials and some leaders to rescue us.”
Subsequently, the police registered a case under penal provisions for wrongful restraint, extortion, and wilful injury against several people, but arrested only one of them.
It was the latest attack on journalists in the northeastern state, where intimidation of mediapersons and violence against them has increased in recent years. In no small part, local journalists say, this is enabled by a hostile environment for the press that the government has created.
“Attacks on journalists have seen an unprecedented rise,” said Sekhar Dutta, the convener of the Tripura Assembly of Journalists, a newly revived professional association. “I have been in this profession for over 30 years and I have never seen such a hostile environment in which the government takes any criticism so personally.”
At least 22 cases have been filed regarding attacks on journalists since the BJP took power in 2018, according to Subal Dey, editor of the daily Syandan Patrika and chairman of the Tripura Assembly of Journalists.
In just a month after the chief minister’s speech, he added, six cases of assault were reported. “This doesn’t include the mild threats and other coercions.”
In a speech on September 11, the chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, had claimed that “overexcited newspapers were trying to confuse people over Covid-19” and that he would “not forgive them”.
The previous day, the Tripura High Court had taken suo motu note of the coronavirus situation in the state, ostensibly on the basis of news reports.
Deb’s remarks were taken to be a threat by the journalist fraternity who, under the banner of the Tripura Assembly of Journalists, held a series of protests, demanding the government respect press freedom and act to curb violence against mediapersons. The latest protest was held on October 2 where journalists wore black badges and demanded that the chief minister withdraw his threatening statement.
Deb has since reportedly invited a few prominent journalists for a meeting, but the association has ruled out any talks until a formal invitation is sent to it and the chief minister withdraws his statement.
The day after Deb’s speech, on September 12, two journalists were assaulted in Dhalai and South Tripura districts.
Ashok Dasgupta, a reporter for the local newspaper Tripura Khabar and the local TV news channel News Today, was attacked at Matai village in Belonia. He had gone there to cover an accidental death by electrocution, only to have his attention drawn to a drinking water crisis. The only source of clean drinking water in the village was one tap with erratic supply. This merited a story, Dasgupta thought, and he decided to report it.
“I was listening to some women talking about the problem they faced and taking photos. Suddenly, the panchayat leaders came and told me to stop taking pictures and leave the area. They threatened the women as well, saying they would no longer get to take water,” Dasgupta recalled.
He was shocked. “Unlike when you are covering issues of conflict or some agitation, you’re hardly prepared for something like this while covering a water crisis,” he said.
In Ambassa, the district headquarters of Dhalai, Parashar Biswas, a reporter with Syandan Patrika, was assaulted by unknown persons after he put up a social media post criticising the chief minister’s comments about the media. The police filed a case, but have not made any arrest so far.
If growing violence against journalists wasn’t worrying enough, the Tripura government has used the pandemic to squeeze the press. In April, it directed all officials below the rank of secretary not to speak with the press. As a result, journalists have been compelled to depend for information on a handful of top officials such as the chief secretary and the director general of police.
“Officials on the ground not talking to reporters creates a perspective vacuum,” Paramita Livingstone, the managing editor of the leading Bengali daily Dainik Sambad, explained the impact of the decision. “Moreover, it is not possible to get a response for every story from officials of the secretary rank. If we have a public interest story from rural Tripura, how can we hold it back until we get a quote from the chief secretary who is very busy during this period?”
At Dainik Sambad, though, the journalists have been working around such restrictions.
“We do not depend on the government to do our job. Whenever we get a story that needs a response from an official, we approach them. If they ask us to speak to their superiors, we try to do that as well,” Livingstone explained. “If we still don’t get a response, we are left with no option but to go ahead with the story if it is in the public interest.”
In September, Livingstone published a series of reports about the state’s coronavirus situation that invited a legal notice from West Tripura’s district magistrate. Livingstone rejected the charges, contained in the notice, of spreading panic by publishing fake information, describing them as ridiculous.
“Immediately after the report came out, they asked us to put out a clarification. We carried it in full. Then, they wanted to know our sources, those who had provided us the evidence. We stood our ground. We said we wouldn’t bend to this completely unethical demand,” Livingstone said.
A legal notice is just one stick that the government uses to beat up the media with, Jayanta Debnath, the founder of the news website Tripurainfo, pointed out. Another is government ads. He was speaking from personal experience.
On August 16, Debnath published an explaining how prime minister Narendra Modi’s “vocal for local” call wasn’t having much impact in Tripura. The article was brought up at a press conference of the BJP a few days later and, soon after, government advertisements to his website were stopped.
“There was absolutely nothing in that piece that wasn’t factual,” said Debnath. “I am ready to defend it.”
Commenting on the BJP government’s current attitude to the press, Dutta, the journalist association’s convener, said, “It is often through criticism and news reports that a government functions better and fixes its shortcomings. To create a hostile environment for journalism will ensure an information vacuum which can prove disastrous in this situation when we need to know more about what is going on.”
Dipanjan Sinha is an independent journalist.
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