Media as an Entity and Freedom of Expression as a Fundamental Right are under Grave Threat from the Ruling Establishment in Orissa: MUFP White Paper

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

Media Unity for Freedom of Press (MUFP), for the first time in our history, has brought out a White Paper on attack on Press in the State, after it was adopted in its Media Advisory Council and has formally released it for the public. For documentation, we post the Paper here below:

The Background:

Stray attacks on individual journalists by the powers that be have long ceased to raise eyebrows in Orissa, just as it has done in the rest of the country. But in the last five years, the attacks have become more frequent, more widespread and more vicious. A distinct pattern has begun to emerge in the targeting of journalists in the state. It is no more directed at the stray journalist toeing a stridently anti-government line; it is now a systematic attempt to identify and punish all journalists or groups of journalists, who may have an opinion that may not be to the liking of the ruling political and bureaucratic class. Muzzling voices of dissent has never been more brazen.
The assault on the Freedom of the Press has become particularly vicious in the last two years.

Journalists have been hounded; assaulted; insulted; humiliated; put on surveillance; beaten up (either by goons or by the police and sometimes by both); charged with ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war against the State’ and much worse. Even lady reporters have not been spared. There is an audacity on display, which is deeply worrying in a functioning democracy. It is as if the political-bureaucratic-corporate class has got a firm assurance from someone that nothing will happen to them no matter how brazen the attack is. That is why Bhubaneswar Police Commissionerate could single out a particular journalist of a leading Oriya daily and bar his entry into a Press Meet by the Commissioner; or the supposedly ‘long’ arm of the law stops well short of a minister’s son – despite assaulting a journalist in full public view and being named in the FIR lodged by the concerned journalist.
A major reason behind the spurt in attacks on media persons is the state government’s growing intolerance of any view that does not toe the government line on corporate and mining interests –particularly those dealing in precious metals like iron ore and bauxite. These companies, we are told, will usher in ‘rapid development’, create enormous employment opportunities and make Orissa a land of milk and honey. There is a concerted effort to manufacture consensus on the need to roll out the red carpet to these companies and turn a blind eye to their flagrant violation of all laws and norms of civilized corporate behavior. When media persons refuse to buy this line and raise questions on the acts of omission and commission by the government and the corporates, the wrath of the government falls on them like a ton of bricks.
There are many instances where the police have actively colluded with vested interest groups and slapped concocted charges against scribes who dare to question the powers that be. In one such case, a reporter has had to languish in jail for three months. In most cases, the perpetrators of crimes against media persons have been allowed to go scot-free.

Running parallel to the attacks on individual journalists is a systematic ongoing exercise to deny access to any information that might cause embarrassment to the government of the day. In the Vedanta University case, for example, the government not only sought to discredit the institution of LOKPAL by blaming it for leaking its report indicting the government, but also added insult to injury by daring it to slap cases against those media organizations which published, in part or whole, the leaked report.
In the age of “Wikileaks” and Julian Assange, attempts to punish the media for publishing what is strictly not a government document are nothing short of laughable. In the case of the leak of the CAG report on the telecom scandal, there may have been calls for action against the CAG (nobody demanded action against the media houses which broke the story, mind you!) by a few loudmouths of the ruling UPA establishment. But the government was not foolish enough to heed their call as the Naveen Patnaik government appears to have done. It is as if the Lokpal and the media had touched a ‘raw nerve’.
In short, the media as an entity and Freedom of Speech and expression as a fundamental right are under grave threat from the ruling establishment.
Birth of MUFP
It goes without saying that fighting this emerging monster is everybody’s business – everybody, who has something to do with the media; reporters, sub editors, camerapersons, anchors, backroom staff, besides stringers, part timers and even freelancers, who write regularly.
There is no dearth of journalists’ organizations and unions in Odisha and many of them are doing a commendable job in ensuring that journalists get a better deal from their employers and the government.
But there is something beyond the bread and butter issues, which concern all mediapersons: freedom of speech and an unfettered right to hold or express a view or an opinion no matter who finds it unpalatable. The Unions, by their very nature, are not really cut out to handle such issues, though they can contribute significantly to the effort.
This is why the need for an organisation like Media Unity fro Freedom of Speech – MUFP, in short – was felt by a group of senior, like minded journalists.

Though attacks on journalists have been protested even before, it was the arrest and long incarceration of Laxman Choudhury, the Mohana Reporter of Sambad, under the charges of ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war against the State’, which hastened the birth of MUFP. The sheer preposterousness of the government act called for a closing of ranks among all journalists of the state and a spirited show of unity and solidarity that would tell the government in no uncertain terms that it cannot take the media for granted.

And that precisely is how things actually have panned out. In a short while, MUFP has emerged as a forum for, of and by media persons – and the term is used in its widest possible meaning – to uphold and protect our precious Freedom of Speech and eliminate all threats to it – whether from the government, the ruling party, their cohorts, corporate mafia or others – in a peaceful and democratic way. The basic idea was to sink our individual differences and present a united front when it comes to issues of the Freedom of Speech because it is too precious to be frittered away by fighting our own battles while the ruling clique gets more and more emboldened.

Since its inception the MUFP has stood up strongly and unitedly against every reported case of attacks on media persons and expressed solidarity with the affected media persons irrespective of how big or small the media organizations they work for, are.

MUFP has helped make Freedom of Speech an issue cutting across competing media organizations. Not long ago, an attack on a reporter of one organization would go unreported or underreported in a rival organization. It is a matter of no small satisfaction that in the short period of its existence, MUFP has managed to reverse this trend. Why, it has done the unthinkable by bringing Editors of all major dailies and television channels – many of them fierce professional rivals – on one platform.

The MUFP was conceived as a broad platform that would unite each and every person connected with media, irrespective of their affiliation to this or that trade union, to stand up against all forms of attacks against the freedom and dignity of press and to express support and solidarity with any media person in any part of Orissa, who faces attacks while exercising his/her inalienable right to operate and report freely without any unreasonable obstacles or fear of attacks.

In tune with the basic idea behind its formation, MUFP has consciously done away with formalities and hierarchies, which has been the bane of many organizations. It is not even a registered organization and functions through a Presidium comprising eight senior journalists known for their professional integrity. It has no membership fees and raises funds by way of voluntary contributions only from members as and when the need arises.
The novelty does not stop at that; it also permeates the methods of protest. Whenever and wherever in the state a media person or the media as a whole is attacked, members are invited by the Presidium – mostly through emails and SMSes – to gather under what has come to be known as the Freedom Tree in front of Soochana Bhavan (now renamed Jaydev Bhavan) to show solidarity and protest peacefully through placards, banners and other democratic methods. Whenever warranted, a written memorandum is prepared by the Presidium and handed over to the concerned authorities which, in most cases, happens to be the Chief Minister since he handles the Home portfolio.
There have been far too many attacks on the media in the recent past. What is more, the attacks are becoming more frequent and audacious by the day. Some of the major reported incidents of attack on and harassment of the media have been listed below in chronological order:

24 February, 2005:

Keerti Chandra Sahu of Anupam Bharat was arrested by the police on 14 February 2004 at Kashipur u/s 124-A(sedition), 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 506 (Criminal intimidation. His fault: he had dared to report the plight of the tribals and the havoc that Utkal Alumina Plant of the Aditya Birla group was causing to their lives and livelihoods. In a move that went on to set the tone for the subsequent years, he was arraigned for his alleged ‘links with the Maoists’, arrested and jailed.
May 2007
The ‘crime’ of Khuturam Sunani and Meghanad Kharsel was a little different. They had committed the blasphemy of reporting that in the land of sugar and honey that Odisha is, there are tribals in Sinapalli block of Khariar district who were living on soft dolomite stones called jhikri in local parlance. In May 2007, they were charged under sections 124-A (sedition) for their supposed attempt to ‘destabilize’ the government through reporting this ugly truth. Even Section 417 of IPC (cheating) was slapped against them.
8 December, 2008:
Lenin Ray edits Nissan, a radical journal in Odia. But the Jagatsinghpur SP thought otherwise. He was convinced that it was a Maoist mouthpiece. Following the publication of a booklet titled ʻDharma Namare Kandhamalare Rakta Nadiʼ, which exposed the nefarious games religious extremists play, police arrested him on 8 December 2008 u/s 153 A (a) & (b), 295A and 34 of IPC. Though released on bail by the Sessions court on 17 December 2009, Ray is saddled with stringent conditions that are not at all conducive to the exercise of his Freedom of Speech.
20 September, 2009:
The ubiquitous Sections 124-A (sedition) as well as 120-A (criminal conspiracy) also came in handy in the case of Laxman Choudhury, the Sambad reporter in Mohana, who was arrested by the officer in-charge of Mohana PS on Sept 20, 2009 ostensibly for being the intended recipient (not the actual recipient) of some Maoist literature. But the actual reason was his reporting of the OIC’s nexus with ganja traders of the area. He had to suffer in jail for 79 days before conscientious senior advocate Jagannath Patnaik fought his case gratis in the High Court to secure his release. The supreme irony was the concerned officer was arrested by vigilance sleuths while accepting a bribe from a notorious ganja trader.
September 2009:
In September 2009, Sriharsha Mishra and Kirna Mishra, two journalists from Oriya daily ʻAromv’, were abused and assaulted by the security guard of the Jharsaguda Collector, aided, abetted and instigated by the Collector himself for daring to ask him why he had not yet visited the villages where a number of farmers had committed suicide and what the administration had done about the death of farmers in the district.
7 November, 2009:
Jagannath Bastia, reporrter of Oriya daily Samaj at Puri, is known for having exposed land-grabbing by ruling party leaders and officers of the Puri civic body. He has alsoreported extensively on the open and flagrant violation of High Court Orders in the matter. He was attacked on November 7, 2009 allegedly by the supporters of ruling party legislator and ex-Speaker Maheswar Mohanty. He was hit on the head while returning home from the bureau office and was left bleeding on the road, presumably to die. Rescued by passers by, he was hospitalized in a critical condition. He duly filed an FIR, but nothing has come out of it.
3 January, 2010:
Nabarangpur District Collector Roopa Mishra abused Samaj reporter Banka Bihari Bishoi in the presence of the SP of the district when he was, in pursuit of his professional duty, talking with the District Welfare Officer, Mukund Nihal on January 3, 2010, in the collectorʼs office. She took the journalist to task for being miserly with the publication of her pictures in the Samaj and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not mend his ways. She even used her official powers to oust him from the office premises. This was certainly the height of arrogance, but the bureaucrat-run government could not care less.
9 January, 2010:
On 9 January 2010, the city reporters of Oriya daily Aaromv were denied access to the venue of the 15th National Youth Festival held at the Kalinga Stadium under the plea that Police bosses dislike the stance of the paper. Tomorrow, policemen could stop a journalist from covering an important event because they or their bosses don’t like his/her face.
6 February, 2010:
Ruling party Sarpanch of Dhaipur Gram Panchayat under Athgarh block, Premananda Gochchayat, was executing the Baikani Water Reservoir Project works, an NREGA project, using JCB machines and tractors instead of engaging job-card holders. When Dinesh Das (The Pioneer) and Ashok Pradhan (Athgarh Prahari) went to the spot on 6 February 2010 to probe the matter, Gochhayat and his gang of goons attempted to murder them. The Government is silent on the issue.
13 February, 2010:
Senior lady freelance journalist Bolan Gangopadyaya, who contributes regularly to Ananda Bazar Patrika of Kolkata, on her way to Niyamgiri to collect on the spot information, was detained at Muniguda Police Station on February 13, 2010. She was released only after tremendous pressure put by media organizations and civil liberties groups.
20 February, 2010:
As reported on February 20, 2010, Abhay Pati of OTV was manhandled by the Manager of Cuttack Urban Co-operative Bank, Jajpur, Gour Prasad Das, when he was covering a vigilance raid on the banker’s house. Police is sleeping over Patiʼs complaint.
11 March, 2010:
Dandapani Mohapatra, Southern Orissaʼs crusader against corruption and nepotism, was absent when his residence at Chhatrapur raided on March 11, 2010 by five vanloads of police personnel drawn from five police stations of Ganjam district without asearch warrant, under the misconceived suspicion that he has links with the Naxals. As the terrorized family tried to fathom what was happening, they destroyed rare journals and documents collected by Mohapatra and forced his son and the localSarapanch to sign on blank papers. No action has been taken against the police officers,who had led this unauthorized raid and vandalized the intellectual properties the authorand journalist had collected so painstakingly.
18 March, 2010:
On March 16, 2010, when the journalists were covering a clash between members of the ruling Biju Janta Dal (BJD) and the opposition Congress party in Bhaapur Block of Nayagarh district, they were attacked by BJD supporters. They appealed to the policemen present at the spot to rescue them from the attackers, but the police chose to protect the perpetrators rather than the victims.
30 March, 2010:
Three journalists, Amulya Kumar Pati of the New Indian Express, and Manas Jena and Sujit Mullick, who work for Oriya newspapers, were assaulted in the presence of the police on March 30, 2010 in Kalinga Nagar by supporters of the local MLA and state Finance Minister Prafulla Chandra Ghadei for daring to cover a police action involving lathi-charge and firing on agitating people from Baligotha, Gobarghati and other villages.
The villagers were opposing the construction of a common corridor in the area. Several villagers who were badly injured and had sustained bullet injuries were too frightened to seek medical help and this was what the journalists went to cover.
Pati filed an FIR naming Ghadei’s son, Pritiranjan Ghadei and Babuli Haiburu, in charge of the Tata transit camp along with three others. Two persons were arrested in connection with the incident, but the others mentioned in the FIR, including Pritiranjan Ghadei and Babuli Haiburn, continue to roam free.
March 2010:

In deciding a complaint filed by Dwarika Mohan Mishra on March 17, 2010, Orissa Lokpal, Justice P.K.Patra, held that allocation of land to Anil Agrawal Foundation for Vedanta University was absolutely illegal. When the media gave the decision appropriate coverage, an officially sponsored criminal conspiracy sought to shoot the messenger by asking for action against the media houses, which had reported the Lokapal report, which was till to be laid in the Assembly. Accordingly, the Secretary of the controlling PGPA department wrote to the Lokpal to nitiate action against the media persons and media organization that published his verdict, arbitrarily claiming the same as a recommendation coming within the privilegesof the Government. The Lokpal had received this communication on April 6, 2010.
22 April, 2010:
In the night of April 22, 2010, as many as ten Bhubaneswar based journalists representing different newspapers and television channels were severely beaten up by the management and security guards of Silicon Institute of Technology, a private educational institute, when they went there to cover studentsʼ protest against the death of a student, allegedly due to food poisoning, after taking a meal in the campus canteen. They sustained serious injuries and their cameras were either snatched away or damaged in the attack. Orissa Private Engineering College Association (OPECA)pressurized the police to drop charges under 307 IPC (attempt to murder) when some of the assailants were apprehended. Police did not produce the case diary before the court, which led to their release on bail.

29 April, 2010:
On 29 April, 2010, Chandrakanta Das, a journalist with the Oriya daily Dharitri, was assaulted by a group of people because he had reported a case of robbery. Despite a protest by the Jagatsinghpur Journalistsʼ Association on 5 May, no action was taken against the perpetrator of the attack.
6 May, 2010:
A vigilance team inquired into reported irregularities in MGNREGS in village Suninda of Puri district after the Balanga based reporter of Khabar, Biranjan Mallik exposed it. On May 6, 2010, the local Sarapanch Ashok Kumar Dash, architect of the irregularities, picked up Mallik and with the help of a gang of goons, tied him to a tree and thrashed him black and blue. Local journalists and general public rescued Mallik and Balanga police registered a case under Prevention of Atrocities Act. But the accused Sarapanchis still at large as he belongs to the ruling BJD.
8 May, 2010:
Anugul based ETV reporter Jagadananda Pradhan sustained severe injuries when he was brutally attacked by some Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawans. The uniformed attackers completely destroyed his camera when he was capturing their mass attack on a truck driver for reasons best known to them. The attack was so ghastly that the general public of Angul observed a complete shut-down in the town to protest the attack the next day. The culprits, who brutalized a truck driver and the Press on May 8, 2010 have not been subjected to any penal proceeding so far.
10 May 2010
“A pack of unknown persons are loitering before my residence since a few days and I suspect, they are plain-clothed policemen engaged to generate  fear in me, as my report on State induced terror in Kaling Nagar might have irritated the yes-men of industry.”

This was how Prasanta Patnaik of India TV expressed his agony to the police boss on May 10, 2010 when his residence was put under secret surveillance after he focused on the plight of the people and the journalists in Kalinga Nagar. On receipt of the above communication, the alarming presence of plain-clothes policemen outside his residence was of course silently withdrawn; but the damage it had cause to the peace and tranquillity of his living environment serves as a reminder of how unsafe has a journalist’s life become in Orissa.
31 May 2010:
In MKCG Medical College, Berhampur, a patient died on the operation table, allegedly because of an anesthesia overdose when students, instead of proper surgeons, were conducting the surgery. This led to a clash between the dead patient’s relatives and the medicos. Berhampur based reporters rushed to the spot. When they were covering the clash, medicos attacked the media persons and robbed them of their cameras and cash, leaving many of them bleeding. The journalists’ complaint before Baidyanathpur PS went unheeded; they organized protest rallies, which prompted the police into action. But instead of prosecuting the miscreant medicos, police harped on compromise as any action against the medicos was not acceptable to the party in power. Since May 31, 2010, the law breakers in the white garb of medicos have been evading the law as the law-keepers have no respect for freedom of press.
9 June, 2010:
Journalist Akhand, the Kanak TV man at Pipili in the district of Puri, was brutally attacked by a lower level leader of ruling BJD, Pravakar Behera because he had brought into the open the latter’s illicit timber trade, specifically when a highly value ancient tree fell prey to his avarice. Behera attempted to murder Akhand on June 9, 2010. Police has been sleeping over the FIR filed by Akhand ever since.
9 June, 2010:
Associates of an accused in a local criminal case forced their way into the house of Bhabani Das, a photographer working for Dharitri and roughed up his younger brother on June 9, 2010. They also threatened his family members with dire consequence, if Das’ reportage went against their boss in future. A complaint was lodged with the Airfield police station but the accused goons, though identified, are still at large.
1 July, 2010:
Suryamani Mishra, working with Khabar at Bubaneswar, was attacked by a gang of unidentified goons while returning from workplace in the night of July 1, 2010. Police refused to act on his complaint claiming that the attack was a random act of drunkards, even though it was not difficult to guess who must be the assaulters as it was known in the locality that certain real-estate mafia / builder and communal elements had a grouse about being exposed by him.
13 July, 2010:
A lady reporter (name withheld) of ETV Oriya, stationed at Bhubaneswar and her accompanying cameraman Debasis Mallik were assigned to cover the ISKCON car festival on July 13, 2010. Indian Reserve Battalion was in charge of peace-keeping.
A sepoy thereof, identified as Nrusingh Charan Sahu, molested her near the deity’s car. With she protested sharply, another sepoy joined Mallik and tried to join in the ‘fun’ by molesting the lady journalist. Debasis rushed to her rescue while keeping the camera focused on the ghastly offense. He was brutally beaten up and his camera was smashed into pieces to destroy the recorded evidence. Despite the molested journalist having identified the molesters in the presence of Bhubaneswar DCP Himansu Lal, police has entertained a counter FIR filed by the sepoys and tried to spoil the case.
23 July, 2010:
Samaj reporter Ramnarayan Das was brutally attacked on July 23, 2010 by Subas Dalasinghroy, former Sarapanch of Nirakarpur in the district of Khurda while covering the official response to a self-immolation that a social worker had declared to commit in front of the RI office in a bid to wake up the administration to save the local eco-system from the mining mafia. The Tahsildar was present on the spot. A case was lodged u/s 294,323,324 and 506 IPC, but no follow-up action has yet been taken.
16 September, 2010:
In a presumably cooked up complaint raised eight months after an alleged offense, a pack of plainclothes Bhubaneswar Police hijacked the publisher of Suryaprava, Bikash Swain on September 16, 2010 when he was driving to a hospital to attend to his terminally ill father and sent him to judicial remand sans any legal investigation. In a conference of journalists and civil society leaders, trade unionists and lawyers, political leaders and social workers, convened by MUFP the next day to discuss Swain’s arrest in the context of freedom of Press, participants were of the clear view that he was framed up by police as his paper had been steadfastly focusing on corruption in the administration.
26 October, 2010:
On October 26, 2010, EPA weekly, a premier weekly of Bhubaneswar published by Eastern Press Agency was attacked by a gang of women activists belonging to one NGO called ‘Maa Ghara’ aggrieved as they allegedly were over a published report. Shunning all available legal avenues where their stand could have been tested on the matrix of law and reality, they tried to gag the publication by their obnoxious attack on its office. Police did not act diligently on the FIR filed by its editor Anil Kumar Mishra to the detriment of the freedom of the press.
21 November, 2010:
ETV news reporter at Puri, Srikanta Sahoo was keelhauled by Orissa State Armed Police personnel while covering Suna Vesha festival of Lord Jagannatha on November 21, 2010. His press identity card was also destroyed. Police refused to register the FIR filed by Sahoo. SP, Puri did not respond.
12 January, 2011:
Twin City Commissioner of Police held a press conference on January 12, 2011 in the office of his Deputy. Dharitri reporter Somanath Sahu was denied entry into the press meet and was threatened with dire consequences if he did not go out. The DCP manhandled Sahu and told him that Commissioner B.K.Sharma had instructed him and other officers not to allow any correspondent of Dharitri to attend the press conference.
13 January, 2011:
A herd of miscreants identified as members of the ruling BJD launched a brutal attack on media persons on January 13, 2011 inside the campus of Ravenshaw University, Cuttack, when they were collecting information on attack on foreign students by the Students’ union president with the help of ruling party hoodlums. Police was reluctant to take any action. It was only after the media persons sat in dharana in protest against police inaction that the student union president was arrested.

4 February  1011

Chairman of the Notified Area Council, Pipili, Sk. Babu, who belongs to the ruling BJD, was exposed in Sambad for corruption in NAC administration and hence attempted to murder its reporter Rajat Ranjan Dash in a pre-planned manner on February 4, 1011 in which ruling party hooligans namely Md. Ashikur Rahaman, Md. Yusuf, Basabanta

Das alias Bichi and Pravat Sethi, Councilor of the N.A.C. also actively aided and abetted. After savagely whacking him, with Babu putting his pistol (licensed or not, not known) on his head, they robbed Dash of his gold chain, three mobile phones and cash worth Rupees 12,500/- and then stripped him naked and  paraded him on the streets when local people rushed to his rescue and saved him from the grip of death.

28 February, 2011:
MBC TV Reporter Kiran and cameraperson Prasanta were chased and beaten up by ruling party goons in the presence of Agriculture minister Damodar Rout and local BJD MLA Prabhat Tripathy while they were covering a black flag demonstration by BJP workers at a function in Banki. The assailants beat up the journalist and the cameraperson and tried to snatch the shot footage away.
The culprits named in the FIR filed by the two journalist were perfunctorily arrested and immediately let off on bail, making a mockery of the serious charges.
On the same day, 28 February, OTV reporter NM Baisakh and his cameraman Anup Ray were beaten up by anti-social elements in Paradeep when they were covering a protest dharana outside the IOCL main gate by local people demanding jobs and compensation. The anti-socials who had come with lethal weapons to attack the protesters targeted the OTV team to prevent them from covering their criminal action. They also snatched away the camera from them to destroy visual evidence of their criminal action.

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