Atiq murder: As Centre plans SOPs for journalists, a reality check on 2 state laws

Only Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh have laws to protect journalists, but there are concerns that they are barely effective.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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In the wake of the Atiq Ahmed murder, the centre is planning to prepare standard operating procedures to ensure the safety of journalists. 

While the move has now spotlighted the lack of such legislation at the central level and across most of the country, even the two states that have such laws are plagued by several issues.

In Maharashtra, the issue is non-implementation, while in Chhattisgarh, the final law is starkly different from the draft floated in 2020, journalists told Newslaundry.

Newslaundry spoke to journalists in both states to ask how these laws work on the ground – or if they work at all.

Maharashtra: ‘Police stations don’t even know about it’

In Maharashtra, it took years of negotiations for the government to pass the Maharashtra Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of. Violence and damage or Loss to Property) Act in 2017. It pronounces acts of violence against journalists in the state as non-bailable, cognisable offences. It received the President’s assent only in 2019. 

But four years later, the legislation makes little difference for journalists on the ground, said SM Deskhmukh, head of the Maharashtra Patrakar Halla Virodhi Kruti Samiti, the organisation that had pressed for the passage of this law. 

There have been no convictions under the act so far, and only 36 cases have been registered in over four years, Deskhmukh said. “Many police stations do not even know about this law.” 

Deshmukh’s organisation has shared the government resolution and gazette of the act with “officials from more than 200 police stations”.  He alleged the state government did not do enough.

“It should be the government’s responsibility that every police station should have the GR and gazette with them,” he said, adding that he had met chief minister Eknath Shinde three months ago, requesting effective implementation of the law. He alleged that the law was invoked only in a few cases.

However, Brijesh Singh, principal secretary in chief minister Eknath Shinde’s office, who earlier headed the state’s information and publicity department, said there didn't seem to be any issue with the implementation, and the law was used as and when required. 

Journalist and media analyst Geeta Seshu said that one of the reasons the law has not made much progress on ground is because it has provisions that are already in the Indian penal code. “There needs to be a proper structure in place that will be implemented, such as senior police officers who have to be alerted when there are attacks on journalists, the act has to be rigorously implemented and the case has to be fast-tracked.” 

Journalist-activist Jatin Desai echoed Deshmukh’s complaint. “On ground, nothing much has changed, especially in the interior regions. The law is not stopping people from attacking journalists. Take for example the recent murder of journalist Shashikant Warishe.”

Warishe, 48, was allegedly murdered in broad daylight in Rajapur in February this year. A story of many journalists, working away from the glamour of the metro and mainstream media.  

Loopholes in Chhattisgarh’s law 

Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh – where several journalists have claimed harassment for critical reportage – very recently began its tryst with a legislation for the protection of journalists.

Following wide scale protests by journalists over alleged police excesses, the Congress government promised a law to ensure the safety of journalists in its 2018 election manifesto.  

Subsequently, a committee led by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Aftab Alam was formed. After holding public meetings and taking suggestions from journalists and intellectuals for a year, a draft law with 71 clauses was submitted in 2020. 

The draft was hailed as progressive and pro-journalists. But the Media Personnel Security Bill passed last month is starkly different and will not benefit media persons as much, according to journalists in the state. 

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Sample the provisions for cases in which officials are accused. The draft bill said that a public servant who wilfully neglects duty will be punished with imprisonment which could extend up to one year. The final bill, however, just says that the public servant “may be awarded suitable punishment under the said rules after due opportunity of hearing”. For private persons, the punishment can extend up to Rs. 25,000, according to the bill.

The bill, however, does get one thing right, and that is the expanded definition of a mediaperson. It defines a ‘mediaperson’ as an employee or representation of a media establishment that could be a writer, news editor, sub-editor, feature writer, copy editor, reporter, correspondent, cartoonist, news photographer, video journalist, translator, intern, trainee, and news gatherer or freelance journalist eligible to be accredited as a freelance journalist. 

It defines a news gatherer as every person, including a stringer or an agent, regularly involved in collecting and forwarding news or information to mediapersons or media establishments. A “mediaperson who requires protection”, meanwhile, is defined as not just a registered mediaperson facing threat or violence but also his technical support staff, driver, interpreter and outside van operator. 

The bill says that the government shall maintain a register of mediaperson and goes on to list the eligibility required – six bylines, three payments etc. The registration will be valid for two years and is not up for automatic renewal. 

However, journalists said the authority to decide who is a journalist will lie with the state.

While the draft proposed constituting a media protection unit in every district with representatives chosen by local journalists, the act only has one state-level authority and a committee.

Mediapersons told Newslaundry they are planning to have discussions later this month to push the authorities to amend the bill. 

A television journalist said on condition of anonymity, “How will you decide who is a journalist, and on what basis? In small districts, journalists don’t get payments or even bylines sometimes. People don’t have as much faith in this bill as they did in the draft. But no one is debating about it because media organisations don’t discuss these things openly.” 

“Many people are uneasy about the new bill, although they were happy with the draft,” said Manish Gupta, the resident editor of Rajasthan Patrika at Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh. 

“The bill seems to be more concerned about the registration of mediapersons rather than their safety,” said Kamal Shukla, convenor of the Journalist Protection Law Joint Sangharsh Samiti – the organisation that started the movement for the law in Chhattisgarh. “The law is a fraud as the provisions in the draft have been completely ignored.” 

The Raipur Press Club will soon be holding discussions on how the bill will be implemented, said journalist Shyam Kumar, who works at Express Media Services. “We also have to think about how to protect journalists who go to the tribal areas of the state. How can they be supported?” 

Concerns over centre’s SOP plan 

Seshu said she’s concerned about the central government’s proposal for “SOPs” for journalists.

“How will it help elevate the cases of harassment against journalists? What is the rationale behind it?” she asked. “Invariably, the government creates this kind of shock and panic that worsens the situation. The SOPs should be for the police when they are escorting people in custody.” 

So far, the plan for an SOP is vague. Media reports indicate they will contain norms to be followed for the coverage of events that have an element of risk, such as not following a suspect too closely.

The SOPs could be used to restrict access to journalists, Seshu said. “At every level, journalists are struggling for access, whether it’s covering parliament or being beaten up for covering a protest.” 

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