Twenty-four hours after journalists asked Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb to withdraw his controversial comments that he made on the media within three days, the West Tripura district administration Monday served a notice to Dainik Sambad, a vernacular morning daily, seeking evidence in support of its adverse news on COVID-19 situation.
Speaking at the inaugural ceremony of Tripura’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Sabroom in southern Tripura Friday, Deb, had said a section of “over-excited” newspapers are trying to confuse people over COVID-19 and that he would “not forgive” such newspapers ever.
“Some newspapers are trying to confuse people, getting all over-excited. History will not forgive them, I shall not forgive them either. People of Tripura wouldn’t forgive them. I do whatever I say, history is testimony to that”, Deb said.
Shortly after the CM’s comments, two journalists were allegedly roughed up in different parts of the state. Parashar Biswas, a journalist from Ambassa of Dhalai district, went live on social media Saturday and criticised the CM for his comments on the media. Biswas also said that if Deb continued with such remarks, he would ‘keep attacking’ him on social media.
Hours later, Biswas was allegedly assaulted by 6-7 people at his residence. An injured Biswas was first admitted at a local hospital, and later referred to Agartala. An FIR was lodged at Ambassa police station, accusing multiple unidentified individuals of violence leading to injury, forceful entry, obstruction, etc.
On the same day, Ashok Dasgupta, a television reporter from Belonia of South Tripura, was allegedly roughed up by some locals after he tried to cover drinking water shortage at Matai, a nearby village. Dasgupta hasn’t filed any complaint with the police.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Additional Director General of Police Rajiv Singh said, “We have received complaint in only one case. We are trying to identify the culprits in the Ambassa incident. About the alleged assault at Belonia, we
have come to know that the journalist had a heated verbal exchange with some local people who objected to his reporting. But there was assault.”
Meanwhile, Deb’s comments attracted severe criticism from the state’s local media fraternity who said they were a ‘threat to press freedom’. Journalist organisations have also come out and said mediapersons in the state are working in ‘fear’ due to the CM’s ‘threat’.
Subal Kumar Dey, veteran editor and chairperson of Assembly of Journalists, a forum for protection of media rights, said, “We condemn these anti-democratic and unconstitutional comments from the CM. We have requested him to withdraw his comments within three days. Journalists are being attacked in different parts of Tripura. This has to stop. The CM should withdraw his comments or we shall write to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the Press Council of India, Tripura Governor RK Bais, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Editors Guild, media organizations etc seeking recourse”.
The Chief Ministers Office (CMO) has claimed Deb’s words were taken out of context.
“Our government is committed towards press freedom and media rights. We have tested mediapersons for COVID-19 during lockdown, allowed government vehicles for transporting newspapers to villages, granted financial assistance to newspaper hawkers among other activities to support the media. But a few local newspapers are trying to work with some agenda and that’s not right”, Deb’s media advisor told indianexpress,com.
The government notice against Dainik Sambad is being seen as the latest blow on press freedom. Paramita Livingstone, Managing Editor of the newspaper, said the “tone and tenor of the notice wasn’t acceptable as it had a predetermined notion of the news’s error without considering reply from the media organisation”.
In the notice, West Tripura District Magistrate Sailesh Kumar Yadav said that a news item titled ‘Swasrista Achalaytane Natukesafar’, authored by Paramita Livingstone and published on September 3, is “totally baseless, concocted and prima-facie published with an objective not only to create panic among the citizens but also to denigrate the fighting spirit of the frontline workers involved in fighting COVID-19 pandemic in Tripura”.
The notice asked the newspaper authorities to submit documentary evidence based on which the story claimed that the situation at three COVID treatment centers – GBP Hospital, Shahid Bhagat Singh Youth Hostel and Hapania Industry Department auditorium were :‘indescribable”, or where the newspaper claimed lockdown and curfew wouldn’t be able to prevent or contain COVID-19, or the claim of insufficient PPEs available with the government among other issues.
The notice mandated a reply by 5 pm today, failing which the media would be liable to face legal action under provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
In their response, while denying the charges of violating section 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2006 through the news item, Livingstone said her newspaper has been discharging its public duty and responsibility with diligence,
“This newspaper has not raised false alarm as contemplated under section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2006. This newspaper is very much alive to its duties and responsibilities more specially at present juncture when the lives of common people are at stake due to COVID-19 pandemic…..section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2006 is not at all applicable here”, she said in a reply to the district magistrate.
The newspaper has also raised question on the validity of the notice as the High Court of Tripura has taken the news items referred in the notice into cognizance and asked for the government’s response on steps taken so far to contain the pandemic by September 18.
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