Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

Eminent Journalist Sampad Mohapatra, in a note has expressed deep dismay over the official attempt to kill the zeal of journalists to unveil maladministration in Orissa.

Visitors to these pages know, Laxman Choudhury, a rural reporter based at Mohana, has been a victim of police vengeance and framed up under charges of sedition.

The Court concerned has not paid expected judicial mind to see how acceptance of a closed packet of papers, allegedly ultra-left leaflets, could be read as an act of sedition. But the reporter, who received the packet as a routine act media activity, has been thrown into the jail as an under trial criminal!

Shocked over such ruthless oppression, the Bhubaneswar based journalists had in a delegation met the Chief Minister seeking withdrawal of the misconceived charges of sedition to save the rural reporter from the motivated police and its obliging elements in judiciary. The CM had also assured them of that. But the journalists had to soon experience how meretricious was Navin Patnaik

This being an instance of misuse of police power, the Home-cum-Chief Minister seen unwilling to encourage the Press to expose police malfeasances by standing with the illegally jailed journalist, the journalists from all streams of media had to offer a collective protest rally before the Governor House in order to attract attention of the Governor to the misrule that runs under his name. But the administrative environment has become so polluted that the same rally of scribes has gone inconsequential so far.

The extent to which the fourth estate has been harmed by the present regime is discernible in the very fact of cowering away of media owners and organizational bodies from protesting on records against the sinister steps of police against Chowdhury.

Mahapatra’s mail, meant for fellow journalists, has most speaking relevance for applied democracy. Hence I prefer to circulate it verbatim here below:

A month has passed since our Mohana-based fellow journalist Laxman Choudhury was arrested and jailed on fabricated charges that he was hand-in-gloves with the outlawed CPI Maoist party. The only evidence that the local police managed to gather was an envelope addressed to him that contained 8 Maoist leaflets issued on the occasion of the Foundation day celebrations of the outfit. The conductor of a private bus who carried that packet for Choudhury was also arrested and jailed.

Strangely Ghai Majhi, the man named in the FIR as the person who handed over the so-called “incriminating material” to the bus conductor and asked him to deliver it to Laxman Choudhury is still at large. Reports from the area suggest that Majhi, a para-teacher at Raipanka village ( Gajapati district ) acted as a collaborator of the local police which wanted to teach Laxman Choudhury a lesson for exposing their links with the ‘Ganja’ Mafia and flesh trade. The police has made no efforts to arrest Ghai Majhi… for obvious reasons.

On the 6th of October the Additional District Judge rejected Choudhury’s bail application on the ground that charges of sedition were still pending against him. Sources say that the judge went to the extent of asking the police why they had dropped charges of ‘waging war against the state” but never asked them what evidence they had collected against Choudhury. The same day – that is a week after our first meeting with chief minister Naveen Patnaik questioning him about the false charges against Choudhury – the local police managed to get one Mr Ruben Gamang on their side and recorded his statement against Choudhury under Sec164 accusing him of Maoist links.

We have no doubts in our mind that the diktat of chief minister Naveen Patnaik does not carry much weight in the state. He is both the architect and victim of a system that simply does not mean what it says.

On 9 October 2009, that is the last time we met with the chief minister Naveen Patnaik on this issue we showed him hard evidence of how similar Maoist leaflets were sent to other journalists and were delivered by none other than the Postal department. The point we wanted to make is how the police were trying to using their powers to target media persons who ‘dared’ to expose their misdeeds and corruption as well as others who had little to do with Maoist activities. We also told him how the inefficient and ill-managed state police had defied his earlier instructions to drop charges against Choudhury, which he himself called “ridiculous” and were in fact behaving as an extra-constitutional authority with scant regard for basic human rights.

A cynical view could be that chief minister Naveen Patnaik was perhaps trying to take all of us for a ride with his ‘histrionic talents’ but during our meeting with him he “appeared disturbed” by the fact that the police had defied his instructions and promised immediate withdrawal of the charges of sedition slapped against Choudhury. He asked his Principal Secretary Mr Bijay Patnaik in our presence to take immediate steps to ensure the sedition charges were dropped against Choudhury.

But the sedition charges are still pending against our friend.

We soon found out that the state police headquarters was playing a double game. One group of senior officials were willing to concede that the charges leveled against Choudhury were outrageous and should be withdrawn immediately. At the same time another group ‘senior officers’ who occupy positions of authority wanted to give vent to their ‘frustrations’ by doing everything possible to provoke a media vs state government confrontation. This has little to do with Laxman Choudhury’s case and much much more to do with the sagging importance of these officers as also their personal rivalry with other senior police officials.

Once cheated, we did not take Naveen Patnaik’s assurances seriously. That is why 3 days later on the 12th of October 2009, a large number of journalists staged a protest dharna in front of the Raj Bhawan in Bhubaneswar demanding Choudhury’s unconditional release and condemning the high-handed and revengeful act by the state police No journalist association in the state nor the so-called defenders of civil and human rights barring a few came forward to support the protest action. Some media big bosses went to the extent of opposing our protest and said journalists accused of aiding the Maoists need to be hanged! Not a single newspaper in the state condemned the atrocious charges against Laxman. Some newspapers chose not to cover the protest at all. And some who covered the event with photographs stopped short of mentioning what had led so many scribes to protest !

That is the ugly truth about the Orissa media and their ‘powerful’ owners. Thankfully, despite all this negativism, journalists who took part in the protest volunteered to help Laxman’s case and donated Rs 10,000.00 on the spot.

However, journalists and lawyers in Parlakhemundi, headquarters of Gajapati district where Mohana is located, chose to take the matter to the High Court and decided to appoint senior and widely respected lawyer, Jagannath Patnaik as the counsel for Laxman Choudhury. We had little say in the matter but we thought it was a good decision.

We are told that Mr Jagannath Patnaik has taken a personal interest in Laxman’s bail petition and that the hearing will take place at the earliest and also that the weak evidence gathered by the prosecution will help his release from the jail.

Let me tell you, we have been accused of playing to the tune of the powers that be and ignoring the agony and pain of a fellow journalist who has been in jail for the last four weeks by some people people we respect but who unfortunately have chosen to keep silent so far. Surely, we are not guided or influenced by individuals who have personal agendas and axes to grind. At the same time we can not afford to ignore the fact that we have indeed been paying lip service to Laxman Choudhury’s case.

It’s time we take the battle to its logical conclusions. And also time for us to realize the police under Chidambaram’s regime are all set to terrorize the media into silence before they undertake a bloody war against Maoists- a set of people they are yet to define or describe with any degree of confidence. Call it quixotic or hilarious, the point we need to underscore is: it’s real.

Let’s get back to our original concern: Laxman Choudhury’s release.

Going by the system, one has to wait for the highest judiciary in the state to act as the defender of civil and human rights and order the release of Choudhury. If that does not happen, we need to worry about the manner in which our so-called democracy operates today and regulates the way we respond to the realities around us as members of the so-called Fourth Estate.

Let me know how you respond to the challenge.

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