On October 6, 2021, S Kumaravelu was at an electoral booth in Ramalai village, Gudiyatham Union in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district. A district reporter with news channel Puthiya Thalaimurai, Kumaravelu had been tasked with reporting on the rural local body poll taking place across nine districts in the state.
Kumaravelu and the channel’s cameraperson, Prem Kumar J, were at Booth 66, located at Panchayat Middle School, Gudiyatham. It was around 5.57 pm and as the voting had ended, the ballot boxes were scheduled to be sealed at 6 pm. Kumaravelu was reporting on poor management of voting across the booths.
“The booths were not arranged well. Voting was so slow in Booth 61 that there were 300 people waiting to cast their votes an hour before the completion of the election,” Kumaravelu told Newslaundry.
Having reported the discrepancies in Booth 61, the Puthiya Thalaimurai team proceeded to Booth 66 to get closing shots. “There were no voters. I went live on camera to get the shots of ballot boxes being sealed after the polling,” Kumaravelu said, adding that he has a pass signed by the district collector permitting him to cover the local body election.
At that point, he said, the school’s gate was closed by Kumaravelu V, the son of independent candidate V Parvathy, and a group of his friends.
“They pushed us,” the journalist told Newslaundry, “and hit us on our backs. Another man grabbed the camera wire and manhandled us.”
According to Kumaravelu, the group, which he described as drunk, also used “offensive language”. They said, “Who are you to get inside the gate? You won't cross the locality.”
The two police constables, the six officers in the booth, including the booth-level officer, and sanitary workers nearby were mere spectators. As Kumaravelu and Prem “ran to escape”, the group followed them. They ran to Booth 61, which was just a few metres away, where other mediapersons were present at the time. The group allegedly “abused” the other mediapersons as well, who then left with Kumaravelu and Prem.
The incident, which lasted 10 minutes, was captured on camera and later on Puthiya Thalaimurai. Kumaravelu said they immediately filed a complaint at the Gudiyattam police station.
Puthiya Thalaimurai district reporter S Kumaravelu.
So far, the candidate's son has been arrested. Three others mentioned in the FIR have absconded. K Ramamoorthi, the deputy superintendent of police of Gudiyattam, told Newslaundry that those arrested have been charged under penal sections relating to criminal intimidation, voluntarily causing hurt, and using obscene language.
“They were drunk," he said, when asked about the intention behind the violence.
Both Kumaravelu and Prem also have their employer’s support in fighting the injustice. “The incident has demotivated me so much that I am pushing myself to go to the field,” Kumaravelu told Newslaundry. Newslaundry reached out to Karthigaichelvan S, the managing editor of the channel, but has not received a response yet.
While this is a story ending in swift police action, it isn’t always the case. Attacks on the media often do not get space in the media itself; this case, for instance, was reported by barely three media houses including Puthiya Thalaimurai. And in the 2016 case of a Sun TV reporter being attacked, there was no coverage of the attack at all.
“Media houses do not report on attacks on reporters from their competitive channels,” said a former editor of a news channel in the state. “Even that is viewed in the eyes of publicity, and why would a channel do that to the rival channel?”
Last year alone, 67 journalists were arrested and over 200 physically attacked across India, according to a study by the Free Speech Collective. While specific numbers for Tamil Nadu are unavailable, several journalists told Newslaundry about their experiences.
Anbarasan, a News18 reporter, said he was attacked by members of a Hindu group, the All India Hindu Mahasabha, in Chennai three months ago during the course of his work. He had been reporting on one of the group’s leaders, K Srikandan, also known as Kodambakkam Sri, being charged with sexual harassment of his employee. Srikandan was being produced before a magistrate and Anbarasan was in attendance.
“When I was taking photos, the members of the outfit took my phone forcefully, hit me, and unleashed words of abuse,” he said. He added that he did not file a complaint due to “personal reasons”, despite support from his employer.
Delays in attaining justice and hurdles in the legal process often act as barriers for journalists in pursuing the cases. In some cases, organisations that initially support them fail to follow up till the end.
During the 2006 local body election in Chennai, CS Koteeswaran, then a reporter covering the Chennai Corporation for Deccan Chronicle, claimed a policeman “held his shirt” and “intimidated” him for taking photos of booth capturing in Chepauk-Triplicane. “I didn’t file a complaint because I am certain that I won’t get justice,” he said.
A journalist with an English newspaper in Chennai told Newslaundry, “It has been two years since I filed a case against a person who manhandled me for writing about a godman in Tamil Nadu. The case has not yet been numbered in the court. He is now out on bail.”
Need for strong legislation
Maharashtra is the only Indian state to have an act – the (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017 – to protect journalists and mediapersons from acts of violence. According to the act, this violence is cognizable and non-bailable in the state, and cases will be investigated by an officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent or assistant commissioner.
While states like Chhattisgarh and Bihar are reportedly similar legislations, there’s nothing in Tamil Nadu so far. For more than five years, many journalists unions including the Chennai Press Club have been urging the state government to introduce legislation to protect journalists from attacks and assaults.
“A legislation might not stop violence on journalists, but it reduces it. Just like attacks on doctors is a non-bailable act, violence against journalists should be too,” said Bharathi Thamizhan, the joint secretary of the Chennai Press Club.
Koteeswaran, the reporter allegedly intimidated in 2006, agreed. He said those involved in physically attacking journalists should be charged under acts like the Goondas Act, which provides year-long preventive detention of habitual offenders.
A major issue in the state is that the Tamil Nadu press accreditation committee provides accreditation cards only to print and television journalists who work for organisations; freelancers and those associated with digital platforms are not given these passes. Koteeswaran said, “Temporary cards should be provided to freelancers to extend protection to everyone.”
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