A Journalist's Arrest in Bengal Points to the State's Worsening Media Freedom

Debmalya Bagchi, a seasoned journalist with a decade-long association with the leading Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika, was arrested after investigative reports on illegal liquor trade.

Kolkata: The recent arrest of journalist Debmalya Bagchi has once again cast a spotlight on the state of media freedom in West Bengal.

Bagchi, a seasoned journalist with a decade-long association with the leading Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika, was arrested from his residence on the night of September 6, following a police inquiry. Some opposition parties’ versions have it that police visited Bagchi on the night of August 28 and 29, presumably to question him.

The paper did not report Bagchi’s arrest on the frontpage. Many have pointed to the relative silence in Bengal’s media landscape over the arrest, questioning if it is the result of an unofficial gag order of sorts.

Bagchi’s arrest comes on the heels of his investigative reports on illegal liquor traders in Kharagpur. These reports were published on the Anandabazar Patrika on August 26 and 27. 

Bagchi and his source, one Basanti Das, were arrested and charged – among other sections – under Section 3(1)(r)(s) of the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This section that deals with the intentional humiliation of individuals from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes within public view and carries non-bailable charges. Both were remanded to judicial custody for 10 days, with the next hearing scheduled for September 15.

Adivasi Bikash Parishad, a body for Scheduled Tribes has strongly criticised the invocation of this charge in this case. Tez Kumar Toppo, the executive president of the organisation, said, “While this section is meant to reduce torture on us, its implementation is often lacking when we call for it. However, the police misuse this section at their own will.”

It is largely believed that the story of Bagchi’s arrest came to light after this protest.

The arrest was in an FIR filed after one Saraswati Singh of Kharagpur had filed a complaint on August 28, a day after the second part of Bagchi’s report was published. Singh said that Bagchi and Das had used derogatory language, used caste-based insults, and attempted to disrobe her. Singh is reported to be acquainted with one of the people Bagchi’s report identifies as an illegal liquor trader.

Bagchi has been working for Anandabazar for the past 10 years.

Speaking to The Wire, the editor of the daily, Ishani Dutta Roy said, “We are with Debmalya Bagchi and in full support of free press and freedom of the press. Our stand is evident from what we are carrying every day.”


The backdrop to this incident is the ongoing tension between Anandabazar Patrika and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government. Recently, the newspaper published a series of reports on the job recruitment scam, drawing from investigating agency findings that indirectly pointed to the alleged involvement of Banerjee’s nephew, Trinamool Congress national president Abhishek Banerjee in various corruption cases.

The newspaper’s editorials have been sharp in their scrutiny of the ruling party and the chief minister, particularly concerning incidents related to the panchayat polls and allegations of opposition intimidation.

The Calcutta Press Club has issued an official statement expressing deep concern over the arrest. “The Calcutta Press Club is deeply concerned about the arrest of Debmalya Bagchi and has sought the Chief Minister’s intervention who has assured, due law will be followed,” it said.

Banerjee’s administration has been accused of dealing with the media’s criticism with a heavy hand.

A highly placed executive at the publication revealed that the state government consistently issues veiled threats regarding the discontinuation of advertisements – a critical source of revenue for vernacular publications.

In April 2022, CM Banerjee publicly threatened to take action against negative reports on Anandabazar. “Remember, you also must have a limit,” she said, naming the paper.

CM Banerjee’s book, Kutsha Poksho, published in 2014, also contained allegations against media figures without directly naming them.

Meanwhile, outside the state, the issue of media freedom in the country has been a topic of public discourse, with CM Mamata Banerjee herself publicly advocating for it on various platforms. In February 2023, she denounced the Income-Tax department’s investigations at BBC offices as a “political vendetta” orchestrated by the BJP government. However, in a paradoxical turn of events, just a month earlier, in January 2023, Kolkata Police registered an FIR against 10 journalists and the state BJP chief for allegedly disseminating ‘fake’ reports regarding an incident involving the Vande Bharat Express being pelted with stones.

In 2017, two Times Now journalists were served notices under Section 41A of the CrPC after airing an investigative sting against a firm owned by CM Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek.

The arrest of Debmalya Bagchi has, amidst condemnation, united opposition parties within the state, including the INDIA alliance partners Congress and the CPI(M), in questioning CM Banerjee’s commitment to press freedom. BJP leaders have alleged that Bagchi is being targeted by the state government for his reporting on illegal liquor production.

Leader of the Congress Party in Lok Sabha and West Bengal Congress unit Chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has voiced his concerns in a letter to Mamata Banerjee, underlining the role of media houses as the fourth pillar of democracy and urging the protection of this crucial institution.

He wrote: “To cleanse the society of all forms of corruption and dishonesty, the newspapers are expected to bring about powerful articles, editorials and news items. Thus, the media houses play the (role of the) fourth pillar of democracy. I think the arrest of Debmalya Bagchi would deliver the wrong message to the Indian body-politic. In view of the above, you are requested to do what is needed to save and protect the fourth pillar of democracy and oblige.”

BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, in a long post on X (formerly Twitter), highlighted the chronology of the event. Adhikari was denied permission to meet Bagchi in Medinipur jail, with the superintendent citing that his name was not on the list of approved interviewers provided by Bagchi.

CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty criticised the state’s priorities, alleging that instead of focusing on law and order, Mamata Banerjee’s administration was preoccupied with arresting journalists, thereby raising questions about the true state of media freedom in West Bengal.

India has come under criticism from the Committee to Protect Journalists over its treatment of media. The latest arrest of journalist Debmalya Bagchi in West Bengal underscores the growing threats to media independence, as reflected in its rank of 161 out of 180 countries in the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

Note: An earlier version of this piece had said Bagchi was arrested on the intervening night of August 28 and 29.