The Indian state where press freedom is perhaps most severely tested today is Chattisgarh. Those who try to practice journalism in its districts are neither free from danger to life and limb, nor from exploitation by those they work for. Even as another World Press Freedom Day dawns, there is yet another tale to tell from the forests here.
In Kanker 42-year-old Kamal Shukla is weighing his options. April has been a grim month: he wrote an article about the illegal clearing of forest land in this district. Forest land is protected area but several local politicians and anti-social elements cut trees to obtain deeds under the Forest Rights Act. Rajasthan Patrika, the paper he was working for, asked him to get more details. He then filed another article, this time naming Harish Usendi, a relative of the Chhattisgarh Forest Minister Vikram Usendi, for felling more than 5000 trees in a 15 hectare area in the minister’s constituency, Koelibeda.
The paper decided to hold it over. After making repeated enquiries about its publication, Shukla gave the information on March 25, 2012 to CGNet, the mobile and internet service that records and relays information about Chhattisgarh and its surrounding areas. Other local newspapers picked up the story.
On April 11, when Shukla was in his office, he was brutally assaulted by Anupam Awasthi, a local Bharatiya Janata Party worker and an associate of the minister. He was repeatedly hit with an iron rod and two other people, who were present, prevented others from coming to his assistance. His laptop and camera were also destroyed. Shukla was hospitalized and discharged only on April 16.
Trouble, of quite a different kind, then began.. The police registered a First Information report (FIR) much later, but the state jan sampark karyalaya, or local public relations office, sent him a letter asking him to prove that he was a journalist! Despite the fact that an assault needed to be investigated for any citizen, the administration said Shukla needed to produce a letter as well as an identity card to establish his credentials as a journalist.
So he approached Patrika. But as is very common among big Hindi newspapers, staffers are hired without appointment letters, and given no identity cards. Shukla says he was designated as a Bureau Chief, but he had no letter from the paper to prove it. Rajasthan Patrika is one of the two newspaper groups in India that have not only challenged the Majithia Wage Board notification for journalists but the Working Journalists Act itself! Like several other media houses, it appoints staffers for several years of service without any appointment letters.
When he contacted his editor in Raipur, Giriraj Sharma, he was told the letter would be dispatched soon. Last week, he received a telephone call from the company’s human resources department (yes, there is one) and was told that his agreement was due to expire on April 2012 and a fresh agreement would be sent to him. When he asked for a copy of the previous agreement, he was told his services were terminated.
Shukla says he used to be paid a fixed salary every month with the money coming into his bank account by the seventh of every month. Besides, he regularly got assignments by email from his office in Raipur addressed to him as bureau chief! On April 24, 2012, he was asked to file a special report on the water situation in his district and one April 26, got another letter asking for the reactions of five members of the intelligensia on the abduction of Sukma collector Alex Menon by Maoists groups!
You could argue that if someone’s service was terminated, it stands to reason that their services did exist in the first place. Also, if they are given assignments, they are obviously on the job. But logic is sorely lacking in this lawless mediascape. If a journalist writes a story and gets beaten up for it, that’s just collateral damage.
The Hoot’s Helpline for journalists took up Kamal Shukla’s case and contacted the editor of Rajasthan Patrika, Giriraj Sharma. Here’s what he had to say:
“I would not be able to say anything on the assault on Kamal Shukla because it was a personal matter. Shukla was not employed by us. Yes, he used to write for us once in a while and used to get paid for it. But we (Rajasthan Patrika) have no network in Bastar except for one journalist in Jagdalpur.
If you want to write about the problems of the media in Chhattisgarh, this case (Shukla’s assault) is not an example. We are facing a lot of problems here, the government expects us to write in their favour and don’t give us any aid or even information. Rajasthan Patrika is the only place where some journalism is being practiced and we are paying for it.
And here’s what the Superintendent of Police, Kanker, Rahul Bhagat had to say:
“In short, the two people involved (Kamal Shukla and his assailant, Anupam Awasthi) were good friends. Both of them were drunk and they had an altercation and some amount of ‘gaali galoch” (exchange of abuses) took place. Shukla was assaulted badly and Awasthi ran away. But an FIR was lodged and he was arrested a couple of days later. He’s now out on bail and the case is proceeding.
Both of them claimed to be journalists so our district public relations department asked them to produce letters that they were journalists. There is a kind of circular in our state (Chhattisgarh) that, before taking action against any journalist, we need to inform our IG (inspector General of Police). This is just a routine enquiry so as to safeguard journalists.
Q: Was Awasthi able to prove he was a journalist?
Ans: No, he hasn’t submitted any proof as yet.
Q: Was any test done to establish they were drunk?
Ans: No, Awasthi ran away and came back two-three days later with a broken leg. And Shukla was admitted to hospital and no alcohol test was done on him too.
Q: Are you investigating whether Shukla’s stories on illegal forest clearance was responsible for the attack?
Ans: No, no, this has no bearing on the case. I have no clue about it. There is no link with the forest minister.
On his part, Kamal Shukla denied being ‘friends’ with Awasthi. In a small town with a population of barely 15,000, people do know one another. Besides, he was not drunk nor do his medical records indicate that he had had any intoxicants. Besides looking for a job, he wonders now if the number of other stories he still has of misdeeds and wrongdoings will ever see the light of day.
Happy World Press Freedom Day!