Bhopal: In early September, while the Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan attempted to please journalists ahead of the upcoming elections with a slew of benefits, a first information report (FIR) was registered against Dainik Khulasa’s crime reporter for serving his journalistic duties.
Seven FIRs were slapped against the news portal’s reporter, Jaalam Singh, within a span of four days (September 7-10). It was reported that a total of 11 FIRs were filed, back-to-back, in the Guna and Shivpuri districts of the Gwalior division.
While laying the foundation stone of the state media centre on October 3, Chouhan announced several welfare schemes for journalists – including a fellowship for women scribes and a committee to frame a journalists’ protection law – and ensured advertisements for small newspapers.
Jaalam Singh had reported on an objectionable video that had surfaced on September 7. Without mentioning anybody, the journalist wrote that a video and messages of a respected politician who changed parties have surfaced and have reached the high command. His report said that the politician’s ticket may be cancelled.
The news was allegedly taken as an offence by the supporters of the state minister of panchayat and development Mahendra Singh Sisodia. The individuals associated with right-wing organisations and supporters of the minister filed different FIRs at different police stations accusing the journalist of tarnishing Sisodia’s image and blackmailing him. However, there were other FIRs by civilians accusing the reporter of blackmailing and extorting money.
Singh was arrested from Rajasthan’s Kota on September 13. “While we applied for anticipatory bail, Singh had to surrender when the application was rejected. He is still in jail,” his advocate informed The Wire.
Minister Mahendra Singh Sisodia won the Bamori assembly elections in 2013 and 2018 on a Congress ticket. He was the minister of labour in former chief minister Kamal Nath’s cabinet. Sisodia was among the 22 MLAs who defected from the Congress party with Jyotiraditya Scindia to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He won the by-elections in 2020 and was appointed as the panchayat and rural development Cabinet minister.
Sisodia’s name had hit the headlines in January 2023 for threatening Congress party members in Madhya Pradesh of bulldozer action if they did not join the BJP. His ticket has been withheld in the elections that are to be held on November 17 across Madhya Pradesh.
Town Inspector of Guna Anup Bhargava, in a conversation with The Wire, said that the media is questioning the police action without knowing that the individual does not have good conduct. He has a system of blackmailing and extorting money even from Anganwadi workers. Local media would have supported him if he was a good man.
“A party worker filed a complaint in our area based on a paper cutting on WhatsApp for maligning the image of the party. It did not mention anybody’s name. So we served him a notice because it is a matter of investigation. We did not send him to jail in any matter. However, FIRs have been registered against him in different police stations of the district including Fatehgarh and Myena,” said Bhargava.
Singh’s wife Suman Kirar refuted the accusations of blackmailing against her husband. She said, “My husband has been in this profession for ten years. He has worked with LiveTV and Swades as well. How does he suddenly become a blackmailer after filing a report against the minister? He is innocent. The charges framed against him are fake. It has almost been a month since his arrest. How long will they keep him imprisoned? The journalists have left him alone in this ordeal. Is this not harassment? The FIRs against him must be quashed and he should be released immediately,” Suman said.
Advocate Manohar Mirota told The Wire that nine FIRs were registered against the reporter in Guna district alone. “We applied for anticipatory bail which was rejected. The order was leaked to the general public half an hour before the official order was pronounced,” Mirota said.
“Though unconfirmed, we are getting information that at least 21 FIRs across Madhya Pradesh and one in Chattisgarh have been registered against Singh. We have succeeded in securing bail in two FIRs,” he added.
Dainik Khulasa’s editor Suresh Acharya condemned Singh’s arrest. While supporting their reporter, he said that it is the duty of a journalist to break the news that sometimes triggers those in power. “Our reporter did not create fake news. It was based on an objectionable video in which a female leader was also involved. Being a public representative, it does not suit a minister to indulge in such objectionable conduct. Does it mean that female leaders are also not safe in your party? An FIR should be registered against him for muzzling the truth. This is a violation of the right to press freedom of a journalist,” remarked Acharya.
Acharya added that the administration registered FIRs because of Sisodia’s close relations with Scindia. “We were informed that complainants in the FIR do not even know Singh. Even the local media has avoided taking any stand with him due to political pressure. We have spoken to the chief minister, home minister, and the commissioner in this regard. They have assured us an independent investigation while pressing that arresting without proper investigation must have been avoided,” Acharya said.
The Guna Superintendent of Police Rakesh Sakar, in conversation with The Wire, said that the exact number of FIRs can be identified by compiling all the FIRs in different districts. “The accused has a criminal record. However, a case should not be registered without proper evidence,” Sakar added.
State of press freedom
A YouTube journalist along with seven theatre artists and two others were arrested by the Madhya Pradesh police for staging a protest outside a police station in April 2022. The photos of these men went viral standing inside the police station and seated on the floor of a lock-up, wearing only their underpants, were widely circulated.
Madhya Pradesh was listed third in the highest number of attacks against journalists in the 2021 report by a Delhi-based think tank. of the Group. The report mentioned a total of 194 journalists, including seven women, who were targeted in various incidents across India during 2022 by state agencies to non-state political actors and criminals, as well as armed opposition groups (AOGs).
On World Press Freedom Day (May 3), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media watchdog, released their annual report. The report’s findings placed India at the 161st position out of 180 countries which portrayed a significant drop of 11 places compared to the previous year when India was ranked at 150th position.
The report highlights a concerning shift in India, moving from “problematic” status to being classified as “very bad”’ for press freedom. This shift is seen as a result of media takeovers by oligarchs with close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that have jeopardised pluralism in the country.