STOP PROSECUTING OTV REPORTERS AND ADMIT YOUR MISTAKE, MR. MINISTER

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

“I condemn the attempts to indulge in cheap sensationalism by a section of the media”, said Revenue Minister Man Mohan Samal while informing the Orissa Legislative Assembly on June 01, 2007, “A criminal case has been lodged against the reporters of OTV Sri Puturam Sunari of village Nandigaon, P.S. Sinapalli and Sri Meghanad Kharsel of village Badibahal, P.S. Sinapalli, Dist. Nuapada by the District Wefare Officer. Case No.61 dtd 31.5.2007 has been registered in the Sinapalli Police Station U/S 124(A) IPC, 417 IPC and 34 IPC against these two persons. The C.I. of Police, Khariar is the investigating officer of this criminal case”.

So, Orissa is under such a rule that treats journalists as criminals and charges them for sedition when they dare to place before the public the facts that expose instances of misrule. Of course for the present rulers of Orissa such prosecution of journalists is not new. During the rule of their gang in the Center, Vajpayee had prosecuted the Tehelka team for having exposed his government’s naked corruption in defense deals.

What had these two journalists done? They had captured in their camera the chilling evidence of people trying to live by eating a specific type of stone, as no food material was available to them. They had video recorded a person named Barusingh Pahadia of a hamlet called Nangalghat under Sinapalli P.S. as a proof. This terrible instance of starvation was telecasted at 7 P.M. of 31.5.2007 by OTV.

The viewers were stunned. When the Assembly commenced its 11th session the next day, i.e. the 1st of June, it was natural on part of the Opposition to seek government’s explanation on this appalling instance of administrative failure. Government shying, the whole day was lost under adjournments till at last at 5 in the evening the Revenue Minister ventured his statement.

And what a statement!

It is a disgrace to democracy that a government has dared to condemn in the House a journalistic work as indulgence in cheap sensationalism and the Opposition has not condemned the official endeavor to subject the two OTV journalists, who brought this alarming anarchy to public knowledge, to charges of sedition.

A house committee has been formed to go into the matter though there was no pronouncement of the term of reference.

I am not going into that.

I will remain limited to the statement of the minister to examine if prosecution of the two journalists for sedition is proper.

The statement itself does not present any credibility. When it is based entirely on a veiled report of inquiry conducted by a team of officers that would otherwise have been responsible for the stark failure of the State, the so-called inquiry was admittedly conducted on 25.5.2007 at least a week before OTV televised the stone-eating scene on 31.5.2007.

How could the officers conduct the inquiry on the report of OTV on 25.5.2007 when the report was telecasted by OTV only in the evening of 31.5.2007 and how could the Revenue Minister accept this bogus report and basing on this report condemned the journalists?

The Minister has, in his statement, told the Assembly that the team of Officers headed by the District Welfare Officer of Nuapada, comprising the BDO, WEO and Marketing Inspector of Sinapalli Block inquired from local people as to whether the OTV story was correct. “They confessed in writing they staged this drama by the instructions, persuasions and direction of the journalists who promised them that they would get benefit out of this”, the Minister has told the House, citing further from the report, “All of them reported before the committee of officers that they have never taken stones as food materials”.

When the OTV news on a person called Barusingh Pahadia eating stones to overcome hunger hit the screen for the first time at 7 P.M. of 31.5.2007, why did the so-called committee of officers had collected written confession from the people on 25.5.2007 that they had never taken stones as food materials? On the other hand, why did the committee of officers require them to confess in writing, “they staged the drama under instructions, persuasions and direction of the journalists”? Under whose order the committee was constituted and who had asked the committee to obtain this written confession; that too a week ahead of the news telecasting?

It is intriguing that the Minister is silent about this.

It is further intriguing that the Minister is totally silent about what Barusingh Pahadia, whose telecasted plight constitutes the crux of the issue, has told the so-called committee. He has not even said if the committee had contacted him.

But the Minister has certainly said something that kills the credibility of his statement.

He has said, “The team checked the AAY (Antyodaya Annapurna Yojana) Card of Sri Barusingh Pahadia who was reported in the news as eating stones due to starvation. The person has received 70 Kgs of Rice on 17.3.2007 and 70 Kgs on 5.5.2007”. This means, after the news of eating stones due to starvation by Pahadia was reported by the OTV, the team of officers had conducted the inquiry and checked up his AAY Card. The news was reported by OTV at 7 PM of 31.5.2007. The Minister has never said in his statement that after 7PM of 31.5.2007 the team/committee of officers had gone to his home and conducted the inquiry and checked up his AAY Card. The so-called inquiry was conducted on 25.5.2007. By that time Barusingh Pahadia’s plights were not telecasted by OTV. So the statement that the committee checked up his card must be blatantly false and fabricated.

I am not going into other aspects. I have told that I am limiting myself to the statement of the Minister.

In this statement the Minister has said that the team of officers found from the AAY Card of Pahadia that he has received 70 Kgs of Rice on 17.3.2007 and 70 Kgs on 5.5.2007. It itself is a proof that Rice is not supplied to the poor buyers on regular basis every month. Besides this, in Antyodaya Yojana, an amount of 30 Kgs of Rice is sold to a poor family at the rate of Rs.3.5 per Kg. So, supply of 70 Kgs of Rice at a time to Pahadia is not legally permitted and to believe that he has been given this high quantity would be a folly. On the other hand, to purchase 70 Kgs of Rice at a time one will have to pay Rs.245/- in a lump. The Minister has said that Pahadia is also given assistance under the Annapurna Yojana. Under Annapurna, assistance is given to the most abysmally wretched whom the general body of villagers identify as someone who cannot purchase any food material. So, if the Minister has told the truth in saying that Pahadia is getting assistance under Annapurna Yojana , then his statement that he had purchased 70 Kgs of Rice each time on17.3.2007 and 5.5.2007 is false.

With such a false statement, the minister has tried to give the impression that people are so well-to-do there that starvation cannot occur. According to him, people consume Rice, Ragi and Dal exactly as the rich take. He has stated that the team of officers on spot inspection found in every house Rice and Kandula Dal. But a deep glance into his statement reveals another picture. To quote him, “4000 persons are receiving assistance in Sinapalli Block under emergency food programme as they are old, infirm and destitute people”. The Block has a population of 98,666. Out of such small a population, 4000 persons are “destitute people” who thrive on emergency feeding! What must be their family income? If one person per family is kept alive under emergency feeding programme, then it is clear that 4000 families are in wretched condition. If there are five persons in an average in a family, the Minister has admitted that at least 20,000 persons out of 98,666 are suffering from slow starvation. Zoomed into the hamlet highlighted by OTV, the scenario is much more bleak. The Minister has informed that there are only 28 households in the village Jambahali and Nangalghat out of which 15 persons are being given emergency feeding. The practice being one person per family chosen for emergency feeding, it clearly establishes that 15 out of total 28 families are in slow starvation. That they are perishing under slow starvation is proved by the fact that they have been suffering constantly from “joint pains and headache, stomach problems etc”. The Minister has tried to attribute to the two journalists of OTV the reason of stone eating by the people, saying that it is they who had told the people to eat stone as a ”panacea” against these pains. But through this mischief, he has inadvertently admitted that the people are constantly suffering from these syndromes in search for remedies whereof they had sought for the advice of the two journalists, when they had met them. Whether or not the journalists took advantage of this to build up the story is not the point to ponder over at this stage. What transpires from this at this stage is that the people are under continuous slow starvation and showing the symptoms of slow death.
Notwithstanding this reality, it is appalling that the Minister has alleged that the two reporters of OTV have resorted to “cheap sensationalism” by publicizing starvation and have committed the crime of sedition by instructing, persuading and directing the people to stage the “drama” of starvation. But nowhere in his statement he has shown that the committee of officers had contacted the two journalists and tried to obtain from them their version.

The entire issue revolves round only three persons. The first is Barusingh Pahadia who was shown by OTV as eating stone due to starvation and the other two are the reporters of OTV who had collected and flashed the news. The so-called committee has not obtained the versions of these most material three persons.

Therefore there is no credibility in what the Minister has told the House. And conversely therefore what the OTV reporters have shown is an excellent journalistic work done.

If the House fails to take any action against the Minister for having acted against democracy, people would look at it as it deserves.

But any responsible citizen must stress that if an iota of commitment to democracy is still alive in the Council of Ministers, it should stop prosecuting the OTV reporters and should admit the mistake and take correctional steps.

It may so happen, that OTV may come forward to the rescue of this government.

OTV is a media owned by the house of Baijayant Panda, a BJD Rajyasabha member. The way the OTV reporters have exposed the misrule going on in Orissa by the BJD-BJP combine, and the resultant embarrassment it has caused to the BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik, heading as he is the government, it would not at all be surprising if OTV disowns/dismisses its two reporters and/or initiates disciplinary action against them to convince the public that its reporters were wrong and the government is right.

If this happens, it would be a more dense degradation of democracy.

Let people who love their motherland rise to the occasion and save it.

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