Exit of Anandabazar Patrika Editor Heightens Concerns of Press Freedom, Staff Cutbacks

Though Anirban Chattopadhyay's sudden exit prompted speculation that it came under pressure from the state government, the editor himself has cited personal reasons.

Kolkata: Days after being summoned by the police to answer charges over a news report, Anirban Chattopadhyay, editor of the largest circulating Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, resigned, renewing fears about the state of the media in Bengal.

Though his sudden exit on Sunday prompted speculation that the newspaper may have come under pressure from the state government, the editor himself has pointed to ‘personal reasons’.

On Monday, the newspaper’s print edition mentioned Ishani Dutta Ray as the ‘acting editor’ of the daily.

Soon after news of Chattopadhyay’s resignation broke, social media chatter began that his editorial stance against the Trinamool Congress government was the reason for his sudden resignation. The editor, who has been associated with Anandabazar since 1983, was recently summoned by the Hare Street police and found himself at the centre of a political imbroglio.

Speaking to The Wire over the phone, Chattopadhyay denied any political reasons behind his resignation. He said, “I had expressed my desire to step down as editor to the management more than a year ago. My resignation is solely due to personal reasons. It took some time to complete the process and has formally happened now.”

When asked about his summoning by the police, he said the newspaper had received a notice from the West Bengal government concerning a published news item. “In connection to that, our office and the legal department did what was deemed necessary. That’s all I have to say regarding the issue,” Chattopadhyay said.

When asked if he would continue to be associated with the group in some capacity or if he is completely breaking ties, Chattopadhyay said, “I am not leaving the group. The management asked me to continue our association. However, the contours of this association are yet to be decided.”

Police summons

On May 28, the state’s governor Jagdeep Dhankhar tweeted that he sought an update from the state home secretary in regards to the summoning of Chattopadhyay by the Hare Street police.

The issue was also raised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], though it seemed to blame the BJP-led Central government for the summons. Surjya Kanta Mishra, secretary of the CPI(M)’s West Bengal unit, tweeted on May 30, “Is it true that Anirban Chattopadhyay, editor-ABP (the highest circulated Bangla daily) is sought to be arrested under certain fictitious but non-bailable charges? Is it dedicated to Modi’s first year 2nd-term meant to settle the score because of ABP upholding the secular values? (sic)”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the editor of a leading Bengali news channel also downplayed the possibility of a “political angle” to Chattopadhyay’s resignation. “Because of the economic downturn [due to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown], there is much uncertainty in the media industry right now. It is difficult to say what prompted the decision,” the editor said.

Disagreement over ‘restructuring’

A person close to Chattopadhyay said the editor had expressed disagreement over the management’s recent move to cut the pay of staffers and the restructuring of the editorial staff. Last month, news was circulated that the ABP Group, which publishes the Anandabazar Patrika, asked it’s employees to take a 30% “voluntary pay cut”, citing the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the industry.

A journalist from the ABP group, who asked not to be named, told The Wire, “As of last month, [information about the restructuring] was only at the senior-most level. Only they have received emails with all the information. It’s very uncertain right now. No one knows if they will have jobs in the future.”

Newslaundry has reported that The Telegraph, an ABP Group newspaper, curtailed operations in Jharkhand and Assam from May 31, consequently laying off more than 35 staffers. Several print media outlets have begun laying off staff due to the economic losses faced during the imposition of the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Wire reached out to some senior journalists of Anandabazar Patrika, who declined to comment on the issue. One of them said, “I am not authorised to speak on this.”

Partha Chatterjee, a senior West Bengal minister and secretary-general of Trinamool Congress, was also contacted by The Wire. He said, “I did not even know that the editor of Anandabazar has resigned. So I have nothing to say about it.”

Speaking to The Wire, the BJP’s Shishir Bajoria said he was also not aware of the situation. “The basic information I have on this issue comes from governor Dhankhar’s tweet. I have nothing more to add,” he said.

Many senior journalists describe Chattopadhyay as an erudite editor who helped shape the newspaper after taking charge four years ago.

Chattopadhyay studied economics and graduated from the Presidency College in 1977 and joined Anandabazar in 1983. It was his first job. In June 2016, he was appointed the editor of the prestigious Bengali daily.