NEW DELHI — A, a Hindi journalist in Uttar Pradesh, knew that a report he had filed on how migrant workers had fled a quarantine facility in Uttar Pradesh could trigger an FIR or get him arrested in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
He did it anyway.
Yet, instead of a visit from the local constabulary — as is common in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s regime — A received a phone call from the concerned district magistrate who was dreading a shouting from the Chief Minister Yogi.
The DM, A said, half scolded and half pleaded with him against reporting these failures, citing the tremendous pressure, the enormity of the challenge, and the lack of time and resources that officers were contending with.
A, who like many journalists in UP risks arrest for doing his job, has come to believe that after three years of the “FIR culture” in the state, bureaucrats and police officers serving in the districts have become some of the main proponents of silencing the media by fear or favour in order to protect themselves. The present dispensation’s endorsement of encounter killings, A said, had made the police more arrogant and disdainful of the law than ever before.
If he did not work for a mainstream publication with the resources to back him, A is sure the DM would have booked him for writing the migrant workers story.
“In even smaller districts like Farukkabad, Fatehpur, the DMs completely control journalists,” A said in a recent phone interview.
“The FIRs are a huge pressure building tactic. It now seems like loose currency in the hands of the IPS and IAS. It is a stress that we have to live with. By the time I contact my office, and the matter reaches the headquarters, the damage has been done.”
“The UP Police have never believed in the law. Now, the UP Police have lost all fear. Vikas Dubey is an example of that,” he said, referring to a gangster from Kanpur, who was shot dead by the UP Police while he was in custody.
The state of the media in UP was once again in the limelight on Monday when the UP Police arrested journalist Prakash Kanojia for allegedly tweeting a screenshot of a morphed version of a Facebook post on the Ram Temple by a self appointed leader of Hindus in Lucknow, Sushil Tiwari, who started promoting his “Hindu Army,” last year.
Kanojia was booked for “promoting enmity” between communities. This is the second time that Kanojia has been arrested from his home in Delhi. Last year, Kanojia was arrested for tweeting a video of a woman who said she wanted to marry CM Adityanath along with a comment. He was lodged for four days in Lucknow central jail and released on bail after the Supreme Court intervened. Earlier this year, in April, the UP Police registered an FIR against him for making “objectionable remarks” about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and CM Adityanath on social media.
A, who has reported the rise and fall of other political parties in UP, said they were all guilty of intimidating the media, but not to the extent of the extent of the BJP because the Hindu nationalist party relied almost entirely on perception.
“They do not want reporters to write a single negative thing about UP. Perception is a question of survival for the BJP. So, they shoot the messenger,” he said. “The UP Police machinery is also highly sensitive about what is circulated on Whatsapp.”
While ticking off some of the FIRs lodged against journalists in UP since last year, B, an independent journalist in UP, said, “Our fear psychosis is complete. ”
“They do not want reporters to write a single negative thing about UP. Perception is a question of survival for the BJP.”
A lot worse
India has ranked poorly in any international survey on press freedom for a long time. In addition to the persecution by the state, reporters who have tried reporting on different kinds of illegal mining, the Maoist insurgency or the Kashmir conflict have been killed by the mafia, Maoists and militants. Shubham Mani Tripathi, who was reporting on the sand mafia in UP’s Unnao district, was shot and killed in June.
India dropped further in the press freedom rankings after the BJP-led by Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014, and journalists critical of the religious polarisation and despotism that followed were suddenly vulnerable. The situation for journalists in UP went from bad to worse when a BJP government took over in 2017 and unleashed a barrage of FIRs against its critics. In September 2019, nine journalists were booked in 15 days.
One of the more shocking FIR was against Pawan Kumar Jaiswal, who was booked for criminal conspiracy for making a video of a government-run primary school students eating salt and roti in Mirzapur. The DM of Mirzapur had justified the FIR, stating, “You are a print-media journalist. You could have clicked a photograph if you had felt that something wrong is taking place and publish it. But he did not do this, and hence, his role seems to be suspicious.”
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the tendency to lash out against reporters exposing failures all over the country.
In June, The Rights and Risk Analysis Group reported that 55 Indian journalists had faced arrests, FIRs, summons, show cause notices, physical assaults, destruction of property, and assaults, and the highest number (11) were from UP.
Jailed during corona
B, an independent Hindi-language journalist in UP, recalled that when journalists Vijay Vineet and Manish Mishra reported that the Mushara community in Varanasi — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency — was eating grass, the DM had responded with a photograph of himself and his son eating “ankari grass,” (wild pulses) saying that it was not grass. The DM sent the Hindi-language journalist and the Editor-in-chief of his publication a notice to retract the story. Vineet stood by his reporting, stating, “I have all the photos and videos related to the report, which I have sent to the DM. The condition of Musahars in Koiripur village has been very poor for the last three to four days.”
“DMs did not do this kind of thing before,” said B, the independent reporter. “Now, if you ask a bureaucrat or an officer for a quote, you will get a long lecture on how badly journalists are behaving. Reporters fear calling them anymore.”
B said he is still reporting a few reporting stories that are critical of the government, but this is rare, and done after giving a lot of thought to whether it would land him in trouble.
Independent journalists, he pointed out, not only have to contend with a hostile government, but also newspapers or television channels that are quick to buckle under pressure from the administration and abandon the reporter.
No one wants to get locked up in jail or even summoned to a police station in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which is raging in UP, B said.
“It would be bad enough to get an FIR for doing your job, but to get stuck with an FIR during Covid is horrible. Just going to the police station could mean getting infected. I don’t think reporters want to take that risk especially when no one is looking out for them,” he said.
Responding to a question about the need for ground reports, B said, “Journalists are thinking, okay, I will write the story. Nothing will change. I will go to jail. No one will care. There is an inbuilt filter inside. If this continues, there will be no journalism left.”
“There is an inbuilt filter inside. If this continues, there will be no journalism left.”
Yet another journalist in UP was at the receiving end of an FIR for offending the BJP government, last week. Amitabh Rawat, who uploaded a video of a girl sweeping the floor of the district hospital in Deoria, was booked for criminal intimidation, provoking breach of peace and extortion.
It was the hospital’s cleaning contractor who accused the journalist of orchestrating the event in order to extort money.
In the case registered against Scroll’s executive editor Supriya Sharma in June, 2020, the complainant was a woman from the Dalit community who was interviewed in a report about the fallout of the coronavirus lockdown on residents of the Domriya village in Varanasi, which was adopted by Prime Minister Modi in 2018.
When The New York Times journalist Suhasini Raj phoned the investigating officer to find out more about the complainant, the IO said, “She lives deep in the interiors and is so poor that I don’t think she has a mobile. Ok?”
“No one knows what is going on, whether it is actually these people who are filing the FIR or the state is behind it,” said B.
Founding editor of the Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan who was visited by UP Police officers in April, and summoned to Ayodhya in the middle of the pandemic, told HuffPost India, “It is a timely reminder to the media and to people at large about how vulnerable our democratic freedoms are.”
“No one knows what is going on, whether it is actually these people who are filing the FIR or the state is behind it.”
Factionalism eroding support
Sankalp Dixit, an Unnao-based Hindi-language journalist, was booked by the UP Police after he reported that prison guards were harassing women inmates at a temporary prison that had been set up in the city to decongest the big jails to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The news of his FIR never reached Delhi or English-speaking Twitter.
Journalists that HuffPost India spoke with said the plight of the Hindi-language journalists working at the grassroots in UP rarely reaches Delhi. They have never been able to count on any media house to back them in tough times. But now, factionalism is also eroding local support.
There is a large camp of journalists who either support the ruling BJP or are too afraid to take a stand, and fewer who are still attempting to report.
With the battle lines drawn, journalists in trouble have very few allies left around them.
These feuds at the grassroots are not entirely new. Journalists in small cities have always been competitive with each other. Casteism is also deeply pervasive in these places. Journalist have also always ingratiated themselves with the local leaders and bureaucracy. But never to this extent — journalists that HuffPost India spoke with said.
What makes matters worse, A pointed out, is that even when news of trouble reaches Delhi, the journalists in the national capital are also divided along similar pro and anti-government lines.
“There is no fraternity of journalists to speak of anymore. That too has gone,” he said.
“There is no fraternity of journalists to speak of anymore. That too has gone.”
‘Dormant’ Muslim journalist
C, a journalist in UP, said that he spent Tuesday reassuring another journalist that he was not going to get booked or arrested.
That journalist, C said, had shared a post he found on a WhatsApp group of a person he trusted and shared it with another WhatsApp group. The news turned out to be wrong. That journalist, C said, was contacted a by a local police official demanding an explanation
“I told him it would be okay. I told him you have given an explanation. It was an honest mistake. It will be fine,” he said.
C, a Muslim, says that he has set aside reporting critically on the government for the time being. At stake, he believes is not just his liberty but also his life.
“I have no choice. I’m a dormant journalist for now,” he said.
The advent of the BJP at the Centre in 2014 unleashed a violent form of Hindu majoritarianism, which gave way to all manner of hate crimes ranging from verbal abuse and toxic social media posts to beatings and lynchings.
UP, where BJP swept to power in 2017, has seen a fair share of hate crimes since 2014.
If he writes a post on the Ram Mandir, C said, it has seen as a Muslim man’s point of view, not as a journalist opposing it with logic and reason. Journalists, C said, were also polarised over religion — now more than ever before in his experience.
“They may not say these things to your face, but you can sense it. They will laugh and keep addressing me as miyan or maulana. I don’t like it,” he said. “Sometimes, when it gets too much, I tell them it is okay if my close friends call me miyan or maulana, but you please call me by my name.”
If he does get into trouble with the authorities over his reporting, C said, “No one but a few friends will stand with me.”
Editor’s note: A, B, C spoke to HuffPost India on the condition of anonymity.
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