Challenges to Journalism in Bastar
A Report by the Fact Finding Team of the Editors Guild of India
Bastar, the restive southern part of Chhattisgarh, has been in the grip of a constant conflict between Indian security forces and Maoists for over three decades now. Since 2010, it has been the epicentre of the Government of India’s armed offensive against the Maoist rebels. This has seen the deployment of over 100,000 central paramilitary forces and the opening of new camps of security personnel in the thickly forested tribal heartland. As actions by the security forces grow in intensity and tenor, reports of human rights violations have also grown. In this context, the police crackdown on both local and outstation media persons, especially on those questioning one-sided official claims and versions, has become a matter of concern.
The Editors Guild of India sent a Fact Finding Team comprising three members to Bastar in mid-March 2016, with the mandate to verify and assess:
1) Recent reports of the arrests of journalists in Chhattisgarh
2) The threats and challenges faced by journalists in the state
3) The challenges to the profession of journalism
The team toured the region and the state against the backdrop of recent arrests of journalists in Bastar and harassment and intimidation of civil society groups, activists and lawyers working on tribal rights. Some of these have come from a newly formed vigilante group that enjoys the support of the establishment. The report not only finds glaring challenges faced by the journalists in Bastar, but many other problems relating to a swiftly expanding media. The team concluded that media reports of threats to journalists are true.
The Fact Finding Team (FFT) did not come across a single journalist in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh who could claim with confidence that he or she was working free from fear or pressure.
Several journalists told the FFT that they do not dare travel to the conflict zone because they cannot report the facts on the ground.
Reporters in Bastar and Raipur feared that their phones were being tapped, or that they were being otherwise kept under surveillance, a “perception” officials in Raipur denied in their meetings with the FFT.
The FFT categorized the journalists working in Bastar in four broad groups: journalists by profession; part-time journalists; stringers and newsagents; and visiting reporters. The team found that many belonged to the second and the third categories. Which means they have no formal contracts with news organizations, no security and little or no backing from Editors in the media.
There is no mechanism in place for accreditation of journalists working beyond the district headquarters. So when questions of identity arise, the government simply denies that someone is or was a journalist. Media houses might also sometimes disown those journalists they see as becoming a liability.
Very few journalists the team met in Bastar could speak local Adivasi languages.
The FFT met with Subba Rao, the convenor of the controversial new social front, the samajik ekta manch (social unity forum) which is seen as a kind of urban salwa judum (the so-called ‘Peace March’ or ‘Purification Hunt’ militia). Rao is the editor of little known dailies in Dantewada, but is a well-known contractor in both government and private sector programmes.
Veteran journalist and editor of the Hindi daily Deshbandhu Lalit Surjan, told the FFT: “If you wish to analyse anything independently then you can be judged whether you are with the government or with the Maoists. The democratic space for journalism is shrinking.”
Members of the Fact Finding Team
Prakash Dubey, Seema Chisti and Vinod Verma
Editors Guild of India
29 Mar, 2016