The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Tripura has been “able to condition and manipulate the local media to prevent free expression” but has not been able to do so with news organisations or journalists based outside the state, a fact-finding report released on Wednesday by the Editors Guild of India said.
Following communal violence and reports of a crackdown on media freedom, the association had sent a team comprising independent journalist Bharat Bhushan, General Secretary of the Editors Guild of India Sanjay Kapoor, and Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics Pradip Phanjoubam.
The three-member team visited Tripura between November 28 and December 1.
Citing the Tripura Human Rights Organisation, the report said that the pressure on news organisations in the state was “tremendous” and that a majority of the local media had “surrendered” to the government.
“As the revenue of the newspapers is from government ads, its stoppage leads to newspaper collapse,” a member of the state human rights organisation said, according to the report. “Many local cable TV channels have also closed down because they did not toe the government line. These include Mrinalini ENN, Din-Raat, Akash Tripura and Hallbol. Duranto TV in Udaypur was ransacked a few months back.”
The Editors Guild report said that the three-member team had observed an “unspoken patronclient relationship between the government and the media” in the state. It added that local news organisations had not just accepted this relationship but also normalised it. These developments, the association said, no longer causes unease or outrage.
“It were as if this patron-client equation had now become part of common sense so that the need for questioning this proximity between the power corridors and journalists has become somewhat redundant,” the report said.
The report also cited a journalist recalling how eight news channels had been disconnected in the last 14 months and the two offices of newspapers – Pratibadi Kalam and Daily Desherkatha, the mouthpiece of Communist Party of India – had been vandalised.
The Editors Guild report noted that the state government has stopped advertisements in newspapers. Four of these are Tripura-based and 24 are published from outside the state.
The report also took note of the use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against journalists and lawyers for reporting about the violence in Tripura, which was triggered after attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh in October.
In November, the Tripura Police had invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against lawyers and journalists for allegedly spreading distorted and objectionable content about violence in the state.
During a tense situation in the state, the police had claimed that the law and order situation in the state was “absolutely normal”. The force also asserted that no mosques had been burnt.
Representatives of civil society told the three-member team that the local media was mostly silent about topics, including communal matters and atrocities against the minorities.
“Phone calls go from the Chief Minister’s office to TV channels with officials threatening them if they invite guests who are critical of the government,” an activist told the team. “They also have lists of guests who are approved by them and who they would like to see in TV debates and discussions.”
However, when the fact-finding team of the Editor’s Guild asked about these allegations, Chief Minister Biplab Deb “laughed off the suggestions”, according to the report.
“The Tripura Police and the administration have displayed lack of professionalism and integrity in dealing with the communal conflict and with those reporting on the issue,” the report said in its conclusion. “This makes them complicit in the growth of muscular majoritarianism that subverts democratic institutions.”
The team also noted in the report that through their discussions with government officials and ministers, including the chief minister, “a pattern seemed to emerge of using a carrot and stick policy to control the media”.
The report added: “The carrot was the monitory incentives that the government claimed they were extending to the media and the stick was the threat of FIRs, including charging them under UAPA, which gives the police not only the power to arrest, but also to award severe penalties without the arbitration of the judiciary.”