Lucknow: Freedom of expression may be a fundamental right of every citizen and more so of the fourth estate. But that does not seem to be the order of the day in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, where a government with a thumping mandate appears to be becoming increasingly intolerant towards any kind of criticism in the media.
Criticism – which is one of the basic tenets of any democratic system – is most unwelcome to UP cops, who not only take affront to any criticism, but also turn vengeful. Targeting journalists seems to have become a daily occurrence for the khaki-clad force in some UP districts, including the state capital, where a young well-known freelance scribe Asad Rizvi was last week booked under sections 107, 116 and 151 of the CrPC. Upon inquiry, he was told by the concerned inspector, “There are mild sections used purely as a preventive measure, why are you worried?”
All that Rizvi had done was highlight the failings of the police, which surely cannot be construed as an act that could lead to the apprehension of a breach of peace, for which he was charged. That he was being targeted by the local cops, first came to light when a sub-inspector knocked at his house one evening to warn him. “I have been sent by Inspector of Chowk Kotwali; you must check your writings; you are painting the police in poor light”, was the curt warning. The FIR that followed confirmed the prejudice of the police, whose sword is now hanging above the young journalist’s neck.
Asad’s case is not an isolated incident of police intimidation.
Last month, five journalists were booked under the Gangsters Act by the Noida police. When some hue and cry was raised, the Noida SSP moved heaven and earth to label the scribes as “imposters”. Four of these journalists were charged with “exercising undue pressure on the police for making personal gains”.
The Noida police has been particularly notorious for its apathy against media persons. Even senior cops are not hesitant when it comes to displaying their indifference or antipathy against those who do not toe the line of the cops. Last week, when a woman scribe of a top national daily was mugged while she was cycling on the streets of Noida, senior superintendent of police Vaibhav Krishna refused to meet the victim. As if to add insult to injury, the SSP also failed to take any action against the two ruffians who assaulted the helpless journalist.
Earlier, five journalists were booked in Bijnore after they reported that Dalits were being prevented from drawing water from a public hand-pump in Basi village under the district. The scribes were charged with posing danger to social harmony, creating caste tensions and danger to national security.
In September itself, journalist Pawan Jaiswal was booked for “criminal conspiracy” simply because he released a video showing school children in a Mirzapur village being fed roti and salt under the mid-day meal scheme. The district magistrate of Mirzapur went to the extent of justifying the action against the journalist by pointing out, “Pawan Jaiswal is a print journalist so why did he shoot a video? He could have taken still pictures but the fact that he made a video which went viral, he deserves to be booked for criminal conspiracy.”
Provoked by the brazen charges, even the Editors Guild condemned the incident and termed it as “a cruel and classic case of shooting the messenger.” The guild also demanded immediate withdrawal of the criminal case against the scribe.
The manner in which members of the fourth estate are being targeted reflects the same mindset visible in the indiscriminate police encounters that have left some 67 alleged criminals dead. While the police officially described each one of them as “hardened criminals”, mostly carrying some bounty over their heads, insiders alleged that at least half of them were petty offenders who were gunned down in cold blood after being made to look big-timers by declaring a bounty on their heads. Interestingly, the encounters are listed among the government’s “achievements”.
Sharat Pradhan is a senior journalist in Lucknow.