Around 5pm on Monday, a white-coloured Bolero was seen arriving in front of the office of Patrika newspaper in Dantewada in the South Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Without any notice or warning, journalist Prabhat Singh was picked up by policemen in plainclothes.
Singh, who was missing for several hours, was produced in Jagdalpur court late Tuesday afternoon. The police booked him under section 297 of the Indian Penal Code and section 67 of the Information Technology Act, which is slapped for circulating obscene material. He was sent to judicial remand till March 30.
"The complaint was registered by Santosh Tiwari for allegedly making confrontational comments against some members of the Samajik Ekta Manch on WhatsApp," said Kshitij Dubey, Singh's lawyer. Tiwari used to be a ETV correspondent in the neighbouring Bijapur district.
Samajik Ekta Manch is the same vigilante group that had protested outside the house of Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam in Jagdalpur. Hours later, stones were hurled at the house. Subramaniam left the town, in the face of relentless intimidation. As Caravan magazine reported, Samajik Ekta Manch has close ties with Bastar police.
The Indian Express reported that the police said "Singh was arrested following a complaint about a WhatsApp message that read: “Patrakaar suraksha kanoon se keval unhen parhez hai jo already mama ki ***** mein baithe hai (Only those who are already sitting in mama’s ***** have a problem with the journalists’ protection law). “Mama” is a term used commonly by journalists in the region to refer to a top police officer in the Bastar range."
Apart from the case under the IT act, three other cases of forgery and cheating have been lodged against Singh. He reportedly told his brother Vishnu Singh that he was beaten up by the police all night long and was not given any food.
In the line of fire
Singh reports for Patrika, a Hindi daily owned by the Rajasthan Patrika Group. Two months ago, he had also begun to work for the news channel ETV. It is common for journalists in the region to work as stringers for more than one media outlet.
Two days before he was arrested, Singh was served a termination letter by ETV. No reasons were offered in the termination letter. ETV editors were unavailable for comment.
Journalists who know Singh believe his work has made him a target of the police and its supporters. In the past three months, Singh has written about the attack on social activist Soni Sori and the subsequent harassment of her family members. He has also reported on several alleged fake encounters in the region.
“Prabhat was one of the few people who ensured balanced reportage from Bastar,” said a journalist who did not want to be named for the fear of being targeted by the authorities. “His reports were critical of the high-handedness of the police and the suffocating environment created in the region for journalists,” the journalist added.
On March 1, Singh had sent a written complaint to Dantewada police against the members of Samajik Ekta Manch. In the letter, Singh said Mahesh Rao, Subba Rao and Farooq Ali of the Samajik Ekta Manch had called him "anti-national" on a group chat on the messaging service WhatsApp, defaming him among the journalist community in Bastar. Both journalists and members of the vigilante group were part of the chat. Singh's complaint was accepted by the police on March 6.
After Singh was arrested on Tuesday, it emerged that another journalist Santosh Tiwari had filed a complaint against him on March 5, relating to the same WhatsApp chat.
Journalists in the state have been seeking a law that will ensure their independence and security while reporting from Maoist conflict-affected region of Bastar. Singh had played a vital role in organising protests and discussions for the drafting and implementation of such a law.
Singh is the third journalist to be arrested in Bastar in less than ten months. Three large protests have been organised by journalists in Chhattisgarh, calling for the release of two journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav. Nag was arrested in July 2015, and Yadav was arrested two months later. Since Nag and Yadav were stringers for several publications and Nag had other businesses, the police had questioned if they were journalists at all. But Singh has been a full-time journalist for well-known media outlets.
According to several reports, at a press conference in Raipur on February 20, the inspector general of police in Bastar, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, was quoted as saying: “We don’t care about the national media. You have a different way of looking at things. We work with the media in Bastar, that sits with us, eats with us, and comes in helicopters with us.”
“Singh was anything but that,” said a journalist in Bastar. “He maintained his distance from the authorities so he could be objective while reporting on them.”
This story has been updated at 9.15 pm.