With the increasing threat perception to journalists, journalism in India is becoming a dangerous profession. This was the point which Sudipto Mandal of The Hindu made at a conference organized by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) in New Delhi on 3-4 April 2010.
Mr. Mandal who had reported on the simmering communal tension in Mangalore at great length, said he felt so vulnerable that he had begun to keep an air pistol because there had been four attempted attacks on him. The complicity of the local police with the communal forces made the matter worse, he said.
There are numerous examples across the country which underlines this fact, being increasingly felt by the journalists who are at the receiving end of the situation.
Kuldeep Singh Kaler of Ahmedabad experienced it first had . While reporting on the Asaram Ashram issue, he was beaten severely by a violent mob.
Usually the nexus of the wrong doers and the authorities threaten journalists because they report about the situation which jeopardizes the interests of this unholy nexus. For instance Laxman Choudhury is a stringer of Sambad, an Oriya daily. He had written many reports about the nexus of the local police and the drug mafia because of which the police arrested him on September 20, 2009 on the false case of being a Maoist and detained him for 73 days.
The Karavali Ale group of news papers had extensively reported the violent attacks on the religious minorities by the RSS and Bajrang Dal volunteers in Mangalore district of Karnataka in 2008. After that, RSS goons continuously pounded its circulation network, attacked its vendors and burnt copies of the newspaper. On the dictates of its parent organization RSS, the state BJP government harassed its editor and publisher BV Seetaram by arresting him under numerous false cases. BV Seetaram told The Hoot that the cases which had been filed against him on the charges of disturbing communal harmony are in the process and soon the police will ask for government's permission to prosecute him.
Yashwant Bidyari is an Uttarakhand-based journalist, who wrote many articles on the environmental effects of the hydro-electrical project on the river Pinder. He also participated in a silent mass protest against this hydro-electric project on January 12, 2009. It made the project company hostile towards him. The company filed false cases of looting and burning of its office against him and a group of people.
Lenin Kumar, an Orissa based journalist was arrested on December 8, 2008 and was jailed for 11 days for publishing a book on the Kandhamal riots, in which he had analyzed the role of the RSS and the state.
The laws which are illegally used to harass journalists are mainly three, Contempt of Court, Official Secrets Act and the Criminal Procedure Code.
In 2007 Mid Day carried a series of articles in which it had reported that when the then CJI YS Shabharwal was passing orders regarding sealing in Delhi, his sons got into partnership with big builders. This led to the Delhi High Court sentencing MK Tayal, former Deputy Editor, Mid-Day along with Irfan Khan, Vitusha Oberoi and S. K. Akhtar for four months of imprisonment under Contempt of Court.
Aniruddha Bahal, editor Cobra Post led 'Operation Duryodhana' • an investigation which exposed the cash-for-questions scam. After this many cases under the Official Secrets Act were filed against him and he is being harassed to this date.
This disturbing trend of harassment of journalists in different parts of the country has prompted the Human Rights Law Network to consider setting up a helpline/nodal agency which will offer legal assistance to the harassed journalists across the country.
S Vishwajeet, director Communications, HRLN told The Hoot that 'this body will have members from press, legal fraternity and civil society. It will work towards upholding freedom of press through legal intervention, assistance and awareness campaign.'
This body will also work as data base center or knowledge center. There have many landmark judgments on the freedom of press in India which the lawyers of the lower Courts are not aware of and hence are unable to use them to defend freedom of press. So it will have all the landmark judgments from across the country. It will also have media thesis from across the world. This body will be a step in the direction of expanding the frontiers of law in favor of press freedom.
With its 23 Legal Intervention Centers across the country HRLN has been providing legal help to harassed journalists in its individual capacity as a not-for-profit organization working in the fields of human rights and dignity. It has offered legal help to Seema Azad, a PUCL member and editor of Dastak, an Utter Pradesh based fortnightly magazine. UP police had arrested Seema Azad on the charges of being a Maoist on February 6, 2010 under the Unlawful Activity Prevention Act, 2005. On her behalf HRLN has applied for her bail in Allahabad High Court after its bail plea was rejected by the Allahabad Session Court.
It also helped Samiuddin Neelu, a journalist in UP, in terms of legal expertise which helped him come out of jail. Mr. Neelu was falsely arrested by the UP police in 1995 under Wild Life Protection act just because he was trying to expose the police in food grain scam in Lakhimpur Khiri district.
Mr. Vishwajeet also told The Hoot that 'the Human Rights Law Network, which is a collective of lawyers and social activists, is dedicated to the use of legal system to advance human rights, including freedom of press. Any journalist in India who is being harassed by the misuse of law can contact any of the 23 Legal Intervention Units of HRLN spread across the country.'
The phone number of its Delhi unit is 011-24374501, 24376922, 45532183, 45524835
The contact details of all the units of HRLN can be accessed on this link