On December 21, the Chhattisgarh government disclosed in the Assembly that it had arrested 14 journalists this year, till November. This was in response to a question raised by Leader of the Opposition TS Singhdeo. The admission lays bare the continued threat to the freedom of press in the Maoist-violence affected state.

Last year, the Chhattisgarh police, particularly in Bastar, hounded out several journalists from the state and arrested others for relentlessly exposing police excesses carried out in the name of anti-Naxalite operations.

The question in the Assembly came in the wake of the arrest of journalist Vinod Verma, from his home in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, late on October 26. Verma was accused of using a sex CD allegedly featuring Chhattisgarh minister Rajesh Munat to extort money from him. The government claimed that Verma intended to distribute the CDs to discredit it. The Central Bureau of Investigation is handling the case. Verma was granted bail on Thursday.

Coincidentally, Verma was part of the Editors Guild of India team that visited Jagdalpur, Bastar and Raipur districts in March last year to verify and assess the threats faced by journalists in Chhattisgarh. The Editors Guild is an independent body of editors with more than 200 members from national, regional and local newspapers, magazines and the electronic media. In a report filed after its visit, the Editors Guild said that journalists were “working under tremendous pressure” exerted by both Maoists and the state, especially in Bastar. It added: “There is a general perception that every single journalist is under the government scanner and all their activities are under surveillance.”

Scroll.in reached out to 13 of the 14 journalists arrested this year (excluding Verma) to understand what led to their arrests and whether there is indeed a gag on the press in the state. Nine of the 13 journalists, most of whom work in small towns, spoke to this correspondent over the phone. Five of the 14 arrested journalists are from Bastar division, five from Raipur division, two from Bilaspur division and two from Surguja division, thus dispelling the myth that only certain Chhattisgarh districts curb the freedom of the press.

The journalists include Narendra Kumar and Vinod Kumar Dube, both of whom were employed with ETV news channel in Durg; Praveen Soni (Khabar Bilaspur, a weekly magazine) from Raipur; Suresh Patle (Rashtriya Hindi Mail newspaper), Sunil, alias Bunti Sharma (Prakhar Samachar newspaper) and Vishwajit Malik (CG 24, a TV channel) – all from Kondagaon district; Pravesh Goyal (Patrika newspaper) from Surajpur, Rajan Singh Chauhan (Khabar 7C news channel) in Koriya, Sheikh Salim (Nav Bharat newspaper) from Sukma, Ramesh Dube (Nav Pradesh newspaper) from Mungeli, Gurunarayan Tiwari (Danik Bhaskar newspaper) from Gariaband, Abhishek Gupta (Sahara Samay news channel) from Bilaspur and Habib Raj (Nav Pradesh newspaper) from Kanker.

Inviting criminal intimidation

The common charges against them were of criminal intimidation and extortion. “Reporting on corruption, police excesses and misuse of power is becoming increasingly difficult,” said Uttam Kumar, bureau chief of Nav Bharat in Koriya, a district in North Chhattisgarh. “Speaking to authorities to take their version often invites charges of criminal intimidation.”

This is not restricted to far-flung areas.

On May 5, 2016, Vinod Kumar Dube, employed with ETV in Durg, received a call from his colleague Narendra Kumar who was working on a story on jholachhap or barefoot doctors – a term used to describe unregistered doctors without an MBBS degree – in the city. Kumar was shooting at the clinic of one such doctor when he was assaulted by Apurva Mishra, the son of local BJP leader Prabhunath Mishra, who owned the building the clinic operated from. The junior Mishra dragged Kumar to the police station and filed a case against him. Dube said that when he reached the spot with other reporters and sought an apology from Apurva Mishra, Prabhunath Mishra and his henchmen roughed him up. Charges related to criminal intimidation were filed against both journalists. “The police watched [what happened], yet it filed reports against us despite the presence of so many reporters,” said Dube.

Vinod Kumar Dube, Durg.

Habib Raj, 41, the bureau chief of Nav Pradesh in Kanker district, said he got into trouble too for just doing his job. Since August last year, he has written a series of reports uncovering corruption in the Public Distribution System in Kanker block. “This led the administration to constitute an investigation into the matter,” he said. As the investigation team took it easy, Raj wrote another report criticising its lackadaisical attitude, which was published in early November.

On November 28, Raj was called to the Kanker thana. A food inspector he had questioned during the reporting process had filed a complaint against him, and a First Information Report charging him with insulting the modesty of a woman had been filed in this regard. He spent a few hours pleading his innocence, and was allowed to go after he gave a personal bond. Though no formal arrest was made, he said that the entire episode had disturbed him.

Habib Raj, Kanker.

Targeted in Kondagaon

At 7 am on March 1, the police picked up freelance journalist Suresh Patle from his home in Kondagaon town, 73 km from Jagdalpur city. Patle, 45, was a reporter with the Rashtriya Hindi Mail at that time. He had been reporting on the impact of the Gaurav Path project in Kondagaon. This project, to widen an arterial road, was being undertaken in all district headquarters. The road widening in Kondagaon led to the cutting of many trees as well as the demolition of shops and houses.

Like several freelance journalists, Patle has a side business to augment his income – he handles small land sale contracts from an office, which also offers a photocopying facility. His office fell on the land that was being cleared for the road. “We were given a notice to empty the place by February 27 but the tehsildar demolished all the houses on the 13th,” said Patle. The affected people held a major protest that day.

The police came for Patle after a complaint by the tehsildar. “It was so embarrassing to be taken away in that manner, as if I were a criminal,” he said. A case of cheating was filed against him and three other persons, for which he spent seven days in prison. Patle said the cheating case, which was not related to his journalism work, was filed because his reports embarassed district authorities. He is currently out on bail.

Suresh Patle, Kondagaon.

Another Kondagaon reporter, Sunil, alias Bunty Sharma, working with Prakhar Samachar, went to the thana on January 31 to complain against drunken driving by a Forest Department employee, which resulted in a brawl, when he found papers being readied for his arrest. A case of criminal intimidation, voluntarily causing hurt, and obscene acts were foisted on him in connection with the brawl. Sharma attributes this to his journalistic work, including a report he filed in January where he documented how the police was forcing small businesses to stay open during a statewide bandh called by the Congress.

Sunil, alias Bunty Sharma, Kondagaon.

‘All governments are the same’

In Surajpur district, in August, an argument over seating arrangements during an Independence Day celebration led to a case being filed against Pravesh Goyal, 43, a reporter for Patrika, and also the president of the district press club. He and the club’s former president were charged with criminal intimidation, use of obscene language and obstructing a public servant from discharging his duty. No formal arrests were made and they were let off after furnishing a personal bond. “The episode was only a pretext to threaten us,” said Goyal. “Many are disgruntled with our reporting.” He added that a recent report in which he took stock of the local administration’s dismal efforts to make the district free of open defecation did not go down well with authorities.

Cases were even filed against Goyal in 2000, when the Congress ruled the state. “We were all acquitted just a few days ago,” he said. “This was during Ajit Jogi’s tenure…They are all the same.”

Pravesh Goyal, Surajpur.

Comments on social media have sent other journalists to jail.

On October 5, 61-year-old Ramesh Dube, who reports for Nav Pradesh from Mungeli, was charged under the Information Technology Act, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Indian Penal Code for offensive communication and promoting enmity between groups. The charges were related to comments he made on a WhatsApp group, which led to members of the Dalit community filing cases against him. “He is a senior journalist and has been extremely balanced and sensitive in his reporting but the times are such that any comment gets misconstrued,” said Akash, a journalist with Sahara Samay. Akash said that after his arrest on October 27, Dube spent 27 days in jail.

Not all journalists this correspondent spoke to felt that that the cases filed against them were mala fide. A few – Abhishek Gupta from Marwahi in Bilaspur, Salim Sheikh from Sukma, Praveen Soni from Bilaspur and Vishwajit Malik from Kondagaon – said the cases had little to do with their reportage.

But others are shaken by their arrests primarily because of the lack of support by their employers and the lack of a proper mechanism to deal with such cases.

Narendra Kumar lost his job with ETV after the incident in Durg, said Vinod Kumar Dube. “This shattered both of us,” he said. “We were working on assignments given by our news agency and at times of trouble they disowned us.” Dube also quit the channel for another outfit, fearing similar humiliation. “There is no one to support you – no news agency, no fellow journalist, no association, nothing,” he said.

Pravesh Goyal in Surajpur concurred. “Public support is the only reliable support,” he said.

Added Suresh Patle: “The use of power is so blatant that the police is unwilling to investigate the complaint. They come to arrest us almost immediately making it amply clear that the complaint was brought in with mala fide intent.”

Lame redressal mechanism

In February 2016, the Chhattisgarh government set up a high-level coordination committee “to prevent harassment of journalists”. It includes senior members of the administration, police and two senior journalists. Under this mechanism, any First Information Report against any journalist (accredited or non-accredited) should first be sent to the director of the Department of Public Relations, who would then seek the inputs of senior police officers in the concerned district, which would allow the committee to assess that there is no mala fide intent behind the case. “The committee has met at least five time since it was set up and have considered seven to eight cases so far,” confirmed Rajesh Toppo, director of the Public Relations Department.

Toppo said he was unaware of any cases of journalists arrested this year except of that of Vinod Verma, which the committee decided not take cognisance of as the matter was in court.

Most journalists were aware that the committee existed, but were sceptical of its functioning. “We have to manage things on our own,” said Goyal. Patle said that unless all state departments, especially the police, are informed of this mechanism, the committee will remain only on paper.

There are other concerns. When the committee wanted to take up the case of Santosh Yadav, a stringer for Nav Bharat and Patrika who was arrested in July 2015 in Bastar, the district’s seniormost police officer SRP Kalluri sent it a report that the Bastar police did not consider Yadav to be a journalist.

With the committee faltering in its task, journalists have started demanding a separate law to protect them from harassment. “Given the current situation where journalists are being booked for doing their work, which includes exposing corruption, a separate law for them is the need of the hour,” said Govind Sharma who writes for Divya Chhattisgarh and Aaz Tak Chhattisgarh magazines. When this correspondent called him for his comments, he was in court seeking bail for journalist Chandrakant Kupendra of Naya India, who had written a report on corruption in the Pachpedi gram panchayat in Bilaspur after which he was arrested in connection with an extortion case.

Sharma is spearheading a national level committee, Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Samiti, which is mobilising support for a separate law for journalists. It has prepared a draft law with help from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Samiti members met Chief Minister Raman Singh and TS Singhdeo before the Assembly session began this winter. Sharma said they received assurances, but no concrete action has been taken so far. “But we are hopeful as many journalists in the state are keen such a law is enacted,” said Sharma.

Journalist Chandrakant Kupendra of Naya India in police custody. (Photo credit: Govind Sharma).