During Lockdown, Maharashtra Has Cracked Down on Journalists and Media

The Wire has documented close to 15 instances where criminal cases were registered against journalists, mostly for highlighting failures in the administration's COVID-19 response. Several others have received notices.

Mumbai: In his over 30 years of experience of being a publisher, editor and journalist, Gammat Bhandari says he has never before felt as intimidated and shamed by the government. As an editor of a reputed Beed district-based Marathi newspaper Parshwabhoomi, Bhandari has, for decades, written innumerable critical pieces against the ruling dispensation. But he has not once faced a criminal charge for doing his job, leave alone being sent to jail. On July 22, however, a team of 12-15 policemen reached his newspaper’s office and whisked him away to the police station.

Bhandari was booked under several sections (a few non-bailable) of the Indian Penal Code and the Epidemic Diseases Act for publishing a piece on a policeman who had travelled over 400 kilometres from Thane district to a village in Beed on his motorbike without seeking the district administration’s permission and stayed with his relatives without first quarantining himself.

Gammat Bhandari. Photo: By arrangement

“The story was a straightforward one, published after speaking to multiple villagers and carrying out a thorough fact check. Maharashtra was still under lockdown and particularly, the rural regions had just recently begun strictly imposing lockdown in villages. But since the man in question here was with the police, the administration felt challenged. A non-bailable offence was promptly registered against me and I was sent to jail,” Bhandari says.

Bhandari says had the district administration issued a rebuttal, he would have published it. “Instead, they got me arrested. It’s unbelievable that the police wanted three days of custody to “interrogate” me. The court, however, did not buy their argument and sent me to judicial custody and a day later, I was released,” Bhandari says.

For another news coverage on “illegal” sand dredging in the Beed city, Bhandari says, 17 policemen sent separate defamation notices claiming compensation of Rs 25 lakh each. “The article alleged the presence of a political and police nexus in the city’s illegal sand business. I am in the process of responding to these notices now,” Bhandari shares.

Also Read: When Freedom of the Press is Stricken With the Coronavirus

A clear message

What Bhandari experienced has now become a perpetual undercurrent felt by journalists – mostly from the small-time regional press – across districts of Maharashtra. The message is clear—criticise the government and face police action.

The Wire has documented close to 15 instances where criminal cases were registered against journalists from different print media, TV channels and online portals starting March, the first month when the country went under lockdown. Over two dozen other scribes have been served notices and sought explanation; in some cases, defamation suits were filed, along with lakhs of rupees sought as compensation. There have also been instances of multiple cases being registered against a single reporter or editor. Almost all stories are related to COVID-19 and reporters claim the top state administration has given a free hand to the district authorities to target them.

Since March, the Maharashtra police have also registered over 1.3 lakh cases for flouting lockdown rules and close to 28 thousand people have been sent to prison. The state is the worst hit by the pandemic in the country, registering more than 4.68 lakh cases as of August 6.

An example of the blatant misuse of power would be the arrest of Rahul Kulkarni in April. An Osmanabad-based journalist of a leading Marathi news channel, ABP Majha, Kulkarni was one of the 11 people arrested by the Mumbai police for allegedly airing “unverified news” about special trains to ferry migrant workers stuck in the southern states to their native villages. The news was reported during the peak of the migrant worker crisis felt in several metro cities and the police had claimed that close to 3,000 people, mostly migrant workers, had gathered at the Bandra central railway station (a station meant only for local trains) because of news aired on ABP Majha.

While Kulkarni had based his information on a letter issued by a South Central Railway (SCR) official on April 13, the police had termed it as “rumour-mongering”. Kulkarni was booked under Sections 117, 188, 269, 270, 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, along with Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. He was arrested even as the Railways agreed the letter was authentic, but meant for “internal communication”.

Kulkarni says he was the target of a larger ‘political conspiracy’. “I reported on issues that the home department did not want to be highlighted. I was made to pay the price for doing my job,” he claims. While Kulkarni’s case is pending in court, two of his colleagues – Vikas Dalvi, the channel’s Hingoli correspondent, and Rahul Tapase in Satara district – were also treated the same way.

Rahul Kulkarni, a senior journalist with ABP Majha was arrested by Mumbai police. Photo: By arrangement

Dalvi, along with Sandeep Nagare, a reporter of Marathi news channel Saam TV, had reported about an incident where five men were allegedly socially boycotted by villages of Adgaon Mutkule. The day after the duo reported the story, an FIR was registered against them. Dalvi said his office had to intervene and speak to the local BJP MLA Tanhaji Sakharamji Mutkule to make the police back off. “The state has now decided to drop my name from the FIR but Sandeep’s name still remains. Although both channels had identical news coverage,” Dalvi says.

Also Read: Coronavirus v. Free Speech: Modi Government Opens New Battlefront in Supreme Court

Action for reporting on failures

Over 220 kilometres away, in Aurangabad, a six-member team of Divya Marathi newspaper—including the deputy editor, reporter and photographer—have been booked in two separate cases. Divya Marathi, the largest paper in Aurangabad with prominent presence across the nine districts of Marathwada, is being taken very seriously both by its readers and the state authorities. So, when the newspaper carried two critical stories back to back on June 24 and 25, poking holes in the district administration’s claims about handling the pandemic in the district, the authorities were clearly miffed.

“In one article we pointed out the municipal corporation was undercounting deaths due to COVID-19. The district authorities had claimed 219 people had died in Aurangabad even when the actual figure was 347. Most of the 129 deaths concealed were due to Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI). We reported a proper breakdown of it on page 1. It led to a major furore,” says deputy chief reporter Shekhar Magar, who along with his colleague Roshini Shimpi was booked for “misreporting”.

Another FIR was filed on Magar, Shimpi and four others for carrying a detailed report titled ‘Naapasacha Fauj’ (An Army of Failures) on the administration’s failure to coordinate its work in the district. “In the FIR, they accused us of ‘rumour-mongering’ and causing panic in the city. But the report had led to the transfer of the district collector,” Magar says.

Aurangabad police have registered two separate cases against six reporters and photographers of Divya Marathi newspaper.

The journalist association in Aurangabad is strong and the filing of FIRs against their own led to several public protests in the city. As many as 108 reporters marched to the district commissioner’s office, seeking grounds for the filing of the FIR. The state home department has now decided to take another look into the case and is expected to withdraw them.

In May, the state police had booked Rahul Zori, a reporter with the news channel TV9 Marathi, for exposing irregularities in the running of relief camps for migrants in Dhule’s Shirpur taluka. On May 16, TV9 aired a story reported by Zori, showing that the relief camp at Hadakhed village near the state’s border with Madhya Pradesh only existed on paper. After the report was aired, tehsildar Aaba Mahajan filed a complaint against him at the police station in Shirpur town and accused Zori of defaming him by alleging corruption at the Hadakhed camp. Zori was also accused of “obstructing official work” by questioning Mahajan.

Shirpur was Zori’s first story in a series titled “Lockdown Maharashtra”. He had set out to report on rural Maharashtra and how it had been coping under the lockdown. “And they (the state government) wanted to nip this series in the bud,” he feels. But after a case was registered against him, media networks across the state stood by Zori and his channel, he says, let him continue to travel. “We completed the series and the case, in fact, helped popularise my work during the pandemic,” he adds.

Several cases have been registered against Zori, all for his reporting. While some were registered during the earlier BJP-Shiv Sena government, a few cases are from the Congress-NCP before 2014.

Rahul Zori. Photo: By arrangement

Also Read: When a Government Is Hostile to the Press

A similar tale in Latur

In Latur, while reporters have not had cases registered or notices issued against them, they have had to face intimidation and in some cases were allegedly roughed up by the police. The Latur Press Club’s elected president Narsinha Ghone was allegedly beaten up when he had stepped out for reporting on March 22. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested everyone voluntarily observes a day-long janata (public) curfew. I had stepped out to get a sense of how residents of Latur were following the PM’s suggestions. I was beaten up by a police official,” he alleges.

Raghunath Bansode, a senior journalist and owner of Dainik Latur Prabhat has alleged that he was manhandled by the district deputy superintendent of police Sachin Sangle on August 1. “I was out on work and had stopped by at poet-activist Annabhau Sathe’s memorial since it was his birthday. Sangle obstructed me and spoke in abusive language,” Bansode claims. Bansode says, in Latur, there is a clear caste angle behind the police excess. “Most reporters who have been targeted in the city belong to the Bahujan community. We are all assertive and keep questioning the authorities,” Bansode says.

Following the alleged attack on Ghone and Bansode, several journalists in Latur have sent emails to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and home minister Anil Deshmukh to highlight Sangle’s highhandedness. They have also sought his transfer.

Several reporters from Latur have written a joint complaint to the police superintendent seeking immediate action against erring policemen.

Vishnu Ashtikar, another Latur-based journalist and owner of the weekly Photocrime says the police action has demotivated several small-time journalists and stringers in the city. “Most of us work here with very little support. Journalists from bigger cities and news establishments depend on our groundwork. But when it comes to supporting us, no one rallies around us,” Ashtikar says.

Agreeing to Ashtikar’s views, Kulkarni says most cases aren’t known simply because no one is looking at them. “Grassroot level reporters are actually the backbone of this profession. They have their ears close to the ground. Hence, the state government tried to silence their voices first,” Rahul says, further adding that the current tri-party coalition government led by the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress has been harsher on the fraternity than anyone ever before. “Maharashtra is under a serious crisis. If our reporting is flawed, you point to that. What is your (government’s) motive behind putting us in jail and getting us beaten up?” he asks.

India’s ‘crackdown’ during lockdown

In mid-June, the Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG) had compiled cases of police atrocities, criminal cases and other legal action against journalists across India. In the report, India: Media’s Crackdown During Covid-19 Lockdown, the group compiled stories of 55 journalists who were harassed. RRAG said the highest number of attacks on media personnel during the period was reported from Uttar Pradesh (11), followed by Jammu and Kashmir (6), Himachal Pradesh (5), four each in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Maharashtra. Two cases each have been reported from Punjab, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, and one each from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Nagaland, Karnataka, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Telangana.

These cases, RRAG director Suhas Chakma says, were collated from what was already in the public domain. “There has been a dramatic rise in the number of cases registered on the press. As the number of coronavirus cases increased, India’s unpreparedness to deal with it also began to show. Journalists, especially in mofussil areas, have been doggedly reporting on the issues plaguing our health system and lack of political will to rectify it. They all faced the administration’s wrath,” he says.

Also Read: 55 Indian Journalists Arrested, Booked, Threatened For Reporting on COVID-19: Report

The Maharashtra home department, however, looks at the issue differently. “A simple Google search would throw a hundred different claims made in the name of reporting. This pandemic is an unprecedented crisis and no administration can ever be prepared to handle it fully. Cases have been registered only when our police department found discrepancies in the reportage,” claimed a senior IPS officer from the office of the Maharashtra director general of police.

The police have also booked several YouTube channels and social media page owners for spreading “fake news”. Of them, at least three persons have been arrested and released on bail, a police official confirmed.

But is misreporting or generation of fake news a recent phenomenon? A senior police official says, “Misreporting is not, but this pandemic is and we are not taking any chance.”