Covering Bastar: ‘Whoever speaks up is silenced’https://indianexpress.com/article/blogs/bastar-chhattisgarh-journalists-attacked/

Covering Bastar: ‘Whoever speaks up is silenced’

Horrific cases of human rights violations in Bastar have not been written about due to journalists’ fear of becoming a target of the state or the Maoists.

In August, five Adivasi villagers from Badrimahu, Darbha, had been arrested during anti-Maoist operations.

“I often asked him not to do this work but he insisted that what he was doing had a greater purpose and one must work for people’s welfare” recalled 25-year-old Poonam Yadav. Her husband, journalist Santosh Yadav, started out as a stringer in the South Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Fear defined Poonam’s everyday life. It was the result of her husband’s work and it was an everyday affair. Her biggest fear was that journalism would lead to his arrest. “But today, I feel proud of the work he was doing,” she hastens to add.

Her fears came true last September when Santosh was picked up by the police from his native town in Darbha block. In August, five Adivasi villagers from Badrimahu, Darbha, had been arrested during anti-Maoist operations. Santosh Yadav filed media reports about the arrests, and also got the villagers to meet legal aid lawyers.

On 29 September, police officials held a programme at the Darbha police station, ostensibly as a show of support for residents of Bhadrimahu who they said were ‘fed up’ with Maoists. When Santosh Yadav spoke to the villagers, though, they said they had come to the police station only to secure the release of the five men who had been arrested. Within hours, Santosh was himself arrested. His name was added to the First Information Report against the five Adivasi men. The FIR accused them of being involved in a 22 August armed exchange in Darbha, where an armed Maoist group had ambushed a team of security officials and killed a policeman. Santosh was booked under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and on charges of criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code.

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“95% journalists in the state are stringers. They are not really the ones whose name appears in the paper. Most of these stories from the ground are coming from them but they are also the most vulnerable population. Even being a reporter for a paper gives them no protection at all”, said Isha Khandelwal, Santosh’s lawyer from Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. Her organization is also in a tight corner as they have been forced out of Bastar following the intimidation of their landlord.

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Bastar region in Chhattisgarh has been in a state of tumult for more than a decade now. Horrific human rights violations have not been written about due to journalists’ fear of becoming a target of the state or the “insiders” (as the locals refer to armed Maoist groups). While the insiders have killed journalists they are suspected of being police informers,state authorities on their part have used repressive laws such as the CSPSA and UAPA to detain human rights activists like SoniSori, LingaramKodopi, Sai Reddy (a journalist murdered in 2013 allegedly by an armed Maoist group)and Binayak Sen.

In prison with Santosh Yadav for more than six months is Somaru Nag, who has been booked under the Arms Act and for dacoity and criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code. Like Santosh, Somaru also worked as a stringer and an agent for several newspapers, including Patrika, which has one of the highest circulations in the state. State Editor, Jinesh Jain, believes Somaru was also targeted for his work.

Ramdhar Nag, Somaru’s friend from his native Teerathgarh, said that his arrest came as a shock to the entire village as “he was always of good character and the police had never harassed him before”.

Harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders

Following the journalists’ arrests, state officials started facing pressure from journalists last year to enact a new protection law to ensure their security. Around the same time, a new so-called vigilante group named the Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM) was formed. SEM reminds many of Salwa Judum, a state sponsored militia composed of about 6500 Special Police Officers (SPOs were mostly Adivasi men trained and armed by the state) formed to counter Maoist groups. The Salwa Judum was banned by the Supreme Court in 2011 for their record of human rights violations. The SC judgment was widely welcomed by activists. But researcher Bela Bhatia says that other security forces got away unscathed. “The SPOs only came in at a later phase of the movement as opposed to the continued presence of more than 40,000 security force personnel. But the entire onus of Salwa Judum was put on SPOs, who became the ‘baddies’. The CRPF was not even mentioned among the culprits”, said the researcher, who has been based out of Bastar since 2015 and recently harassed by members of SEM. Following an India Today expose onthe tacit support SEM receives from the police, SEM issued that it was disbanding in a statement on 15 April. The Chhattisgarh government has called for a probe to look into the hounding of journalists and activists in the state.

In March, a fact finding committee from the Editors Guild of India noted that all the journalists in the state complained that they were “being kept under undeclared surveillance”.Government officials denied the claim.

A senior reporter with Dainik Chhattisgarh, the paper where Santosh had worked, said that in Bastar every move of a journalist was tracked by the state. This suspicion of Orwellian surveillance seemed to have instilled fear among journalists in Bastar. Prior to our meeting, the reporter would insist on having brief and almost abrupt phone conversations that made little sense and were difficult to follow. He called us from different numbers as he believed the police had tapped his phone. Understandably he wanted to stay clear of trouble, and also didn’t want us to get into a situation where we would need to watch over our shoulders.

“When a senior journalist working in the bureau can be threatened with fake cases by the police, you can only imagine what they can do to stringers like Santosh,” he told us. The fear he underlined was not unfounded. The Editors Guild published the depressing conclusion that they “could not find a single journalist who could claim with confidence that he/she was working without fear or pressure.” It said, “The journalists posted in Bastar and the journalists working in Raipur, all of them spoke of pressure from both sides.” All except for Subba Rao, a leading member of the Samajik Ekta Manch, who is the Editor of two dailies.

Defenders elsewhere in the state are not protected any better. In February, Bilaspur based BBC Reporter Alok Putul had to leave Bastar after locals warned that people were on the look out for him.Police officials said that they didn’t want to entertain journalists like him, and would rather spend time with ‘patriotic and nationalist’ journalists. In 2012, the police raided senior journalist Rajkumar Soni’s home in Raipur, seized his laptop, and registered a case against him under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for posting a blog comment about a journalist affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Soni said the environment for journalists in Chhattisgarh has worsened, and the police control the media by paying them, putting pressure on them or threatening to frame them in criminal cases.

He added, “It’s so easy to brand anyone. Today, the three of us are talking and we could be called Maoists. Whoever speaks up is silenced”.The next day, the Mahila Ekta Manchissued a statement in which it declared a member of our team a Safed posh Naxal (white collar Naxalite).