Bastar has become hell for journalists, the govt must not shoot the messenger: Prabhat Singh

‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ was the message that went out from journalists in New Delhi who met today to condemn the arbitrary arrest and harassment of journalists in Chhattisgarh. Journalist from Dantewada, Prabhat Singh, addressed the press conference, organized by the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ). Senior journalists Geeta Seshu, Sujata Madhok and Saba Naqvi were part of the panel at the press conference.

Journalist Prabhat Singh (31) was released on bail on June 26, 2016 after spending 3 months in Jagdalpur Central Jail. He was charged under the Sections 67, 67 (A), 292 IT Act. Singh had been exposing various scams and corruption related to government schemes, policing and civil rights violations in the Left Wing Extremist areas of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh.

According to Prabhat, on March 21, 2016, he was “abducted” by policemen in plainclothes from his office in full public view. He was detained in Parapa police station through the night but shown as arrested the following day from Jagdalpur. He claims he was roughed up during the said illegal detention and the police asked him to start writing reports in favour of Bastar Inspector General SRP Kalluri. Following a pattern observed in similar ‘naxal’ cases, he was also forced to sign a number of blank documents and others of unknown content. He was not allowed to consult or meet with his lawyer. He was also threatened that he could be implicated in Naxal-related cases.

In jail, he was strip searched and subjected to further humiliation, which has become the standard procedure for all fresh inmates.

The case against Prabhat was filed on the basis of a private complaint by members of a now-disbanded group known as the Samajik Ekta Manch. He was charged with making obscene comments on a private whatsapp group. As per media reports, SEM was a vigilante group set up with the support of Kalluri. There have been several other complaints against the group’s activities.

“In a WhatsApp group, members of a police-backed group called me anti-national because we had demanded a law to protect journalists in Chhattisgarh,” said Journalist Prabhat Singh

Prabhat’s arrest and incarceration had been widely covered in the national and international media and noted by the Committee for Protection of Journalists. He has been writing and reporting in a conflict area and his arrest had been described in the media as an extension of the police excesses in conflict zones with a chilling effect on free speech and reporting. Earlier such treatment had been noted in the cases of villagers, activists, human rights defenders and others in conflict areas.

Prabhat is the fourth journalist to have been arrested in Bastar. Deepak Jaiswal of the local Hindi daily, Dainik Dainandini, was arrested on March 26, 2016 when he tried to cover the proceedings in Prabhat’s case at the district court in Dantewada. In late 2015, two other journalists Someru Nag and Santosh Yadav were arrested, leading to public protests by journalists in the state capital, Raipur.

“The judiciary needs to be held accountable for not protecting journalists too,” said Sujata Madhok. “There has to be special protection and a law for journalists. This is because media houses and owners may not always back their reporters”

Incidentally, Prabhat had also been part of a delegation of journalists that officially presented a memorandum to chief minister Raman Singh calling for a law to protect journalists.

“I’d met with Prabhat while he was in jail and later met with chief minister Raman Singh but we are yet to see any response from the government,” said senior journalist Saba Naqvi, adding, “Local journalists in such areas make it possible for news to reach the world and their independence is crucial.”

Malini Subaramanium (a contributor to the news webstie Scroll.in) was forced to leave Bastar after she reported on oppression of tribals in February 2016, including allegations of rape and sexual violence by security forces.

The Editors Guild fact-finding team has found clear violations of laws and harassment of journalists in Bastar, making fair and impartial reporting hazardous.

“When a fact-finding team of the Editors’ Guild went to find out about these cases, the CM met with us but Kalluri did not want to. He responded by saying that he was ‘in an encounter,” said Geeta Seshu. “We have to question where does this kind of impunity and arrogance stem from by which journalists are attacked? The demand for a law to protect journalists has come from the ground and cannot be ignored.”

DUJ calls for an immediate release of all arrested journalists and withdrawal of cases against them. It regrets the impunity to police and security forces and demands restoration of accountability and rule of law in the state.

Released by DELHI UNION OF JOURNALISTS