The death of a Doordarshan journalist in Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, on Tuesday has again highlighted the perils of reporting from the heartland of India’s Maoist insurgency. It has also shown how local reporters and those from outside operate in contrasting contexts. Achyuta Sahu, a video journalist with the public broadcaster, was killed when Maoists attacked the police party escorting his crew. Local journalists, in contrast, must often move without catching the eye of the security agencies to be able to report independently from Bastar. In fact, they generally feel as threatened by the government’s forces as by Maoists; they have even suffered harassment and violence from both sides.

While Maoists summarily killed the journalists Sai Reddy and Nemi Chand Jain in 2013 after branding them police informers, the police have arrested, harassed, intimidated, even driven out journalists from Bastar for reporting about the state’s excesses. Just this past week, Santosh Yadav, a journalist in Bastar’s Darbha, complained to the Committee to Protect Journalists that a deputy superintendent of police had threatened to “bump him off”. This is not Yadav’s first brush with the state. He was arrested in September 2015 on charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy and “associating with a terrorist organisation”. He spent 17 months in jail before being granted bail by the Supreme Court. On October 20, local journalists Kamal Shukla and Bhushan Choudhari were accompanying Siddharthya Roy, a reporter with the news magazine The Diplomat, to Bastar when they were detained by the police in Narayanpur and held for eight hours because they had not “taken permission” to go into interior areas. They were out reporting on the preparations for this month’s Assembly election.

Sahu’s Doordarshan crew was in Dantewada for a similar purpose. He, reporter Dheeraj Kumar and technician Mormukut Sharma were on the way to Sameli village, about 55 km from Dantewada town, to cover the ongoing work on the Palnar-Aranpur arterial road. From there, they planned to visit Neelawaya, about 5 km further away, “to cover poll preparations”, said G Baghel, Dantewada’s assistant superintendent of police. The crew was escorted by a 10-member police contingent. They were around 2 km from their destination when Maoists attacked. Sahu was killed, as were policemen Rudra Pratap and Mangru.

Abhishek Pallav, the superintendent of police, claimed the Maoist ambush was targeted at the media crew rather than the police party. Maoists continued to fire despite the media personnel flashing their cameras and identity cards, Pallav alleged. They came close to killing Sahu’s colleagues as well but the police saved them, he added.

Kumar and Sharma said they survived the attack unhurt by hiding in a trench. Two videos of the attack captured by a terrified Sharma from his hiding place have since surfaced on social media.

Two days after the ambush, the Maoists released a statement, expressing their condolences over Sahu’s death and claiming they did not know journalists were accompanying the police party. “Journalists are our friends not our enemies,” said the handwritten note, signed by Sainath, the secretary of the Darbha Divisional Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The note was dated October 31.

“We had planned an ambush for October 30 and our team had reached the ambush site. The ambush began as they saw the police approaching, but were unaware that the police was accompanied by a Doordarshan team,” the note said. It also reiterated the Maoists’ position: journalists should avoid travelling with the police.

Travel independently and fearlessly’

Nearly two weeks before the attack, Maoists had released a statement asking mediapersons covering the Assembly election – including the impact of the rebels’ call for poll boycott – to travel to the “conflict areas” independently and fearlessly. “It is important to remind ourselves of the attempts made by the government to stop reporters from reaching sensitive conflict areas by terrorising them,” the statement said.

Boycotting an election was a democratic right, the statement argued, yet the security forces were forcing Bastar’s people to vote. Maoists, on the other hand, only “appeal people to boycott elections, explaining to them the reasons”, the rebels claimed. They also denied having cut off fingers of people who had voted in previous elections as “falsely reported”.

Pallav dismissed the statement, arguing that after Tuesday’s “targeted attack on the media”, Maoists’ appeal “for free and fearless reporting sounds hollow”.

A selfie posted by Achyuta Nanda Sahu hours before he was killed. Photo via Facebook
A selfie posted by Achyuta Nanda Sahu hours before he was killed. Photo via Facebook

No more official sanction’

How will the attack in Dantewada affect the reporting of the election in Bastar?

A local journalist who contributes to regional TV channels as well as Doordarshan said it is unlikely to affect “district and block reporters” like him since they never travel to interior areas with the security forces.

“It is only people working for the national media who perhaps feel safer visiting these places with the police,” said the reporter who asked not to be named.

Pallav, the superintendent of police, confirmed that local journalists never get “official accompaniment”. As for journalists “who are not familiar with the terrain and the situation here”, he added, “it is my duty to extend protection to them”.

In the past few weeks, the police have provided security to at least 15 journalists from the national media going to interior Bastar, said DM Awasthi, special director general, Anti-Naxal Operations. The decision to give the Doordarshan crew a 10-member escort must be seen in this context, he maintained, explaining, “A small escort of police personnel has proved to be risky for both the police and the mediapersons.”

After discussing all this at a review meeting called by Chief Minister Raman Singh in the wake of Tuesday’s attack, the state government has decided that “no more official sanction will be provided for journalists visiting high-risk areas”.

What exactly does this mean? “We are not stopping any journalist from going to the interior areas, nor are we asking them to take permission or inform the SP,” Awasthi explained. “If you inform, well and good. Otherwise, you have to understand the risks involved.”

Why then were three journalists detained in Narayanpur for not taking permission? Awasthi said “the matter has concluded” with instructions to district police chiefs not to stop mediapersons.

Awasthi denied that Tuesday’s attack was connected to the upcoming election. It was meant to disrupt road construction work since “roads are bringing people closer to the mainstream”, he claimed.

A local reporter, however, said some villagers from Aranpur area, where the attack took place, had invited the media to cover their protest against the widening of the Palnar-Aranpur road. It is being widened from three metres to seven metres, which requires felling of trees from the rich forest it passes through and the acquisition of farmland, said the reporter who spoke anonymously.