Journalists in Bastar Are Still Waiting for Change

Despite promises from the state government, reporters face threats, violence and arrests on a regular basis.

In March 2016, a team of the Editors Guild of India, after visiting the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, reported that “the journalists posted in Bastar said that they cannot dare to travel to the conflict zone to report because they cannot report the facts on the ground”. According to the Guild’s report, a journalist who worked with news agency UNI told them, “I have not visited any place outside Jagdalpur for the last six years, simply because I am not supposed to write the truth and if one cannot write what one sees then there is no point going out to gather information.” 

Two years down the line, as we observe World Press Freedom Day, the situation is not very different for journalists in Bastar. “The situation in Bastar has become worst recently,” says Santosh Yadav, a journalist based in the Darbha region of Bastar division. Bastar, comprising seven districts of the state, is one of the most militarised zones in India, owing to the conflict between the state and banned CPI (Maoist). “Due to continued firing from both sides, it has become almost impossible to report,” said Yadav, talking to The Wire over the phone from Bastar. “We can’t even go to the villages and report about what is happening on the ground.”

In his mid-30s, Yadav, a contributor to the Hindi daily Navbharat, was arrested by the state police in September 2015 from his village Darbha. The police accused him of being a Maoist supporter and he was charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and other laws, ranging from rioting, criminal conspiracy, murder and criminal intimidation, to being a part of the banned CPI (Maoist), among other alleged offences. After spending nearly 1.5 years in different Bastar jails, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court. “Recently,” he said, “I have been made the prime accused in a case about a protest in Jagdalpur jail.”

According to several reports, Bastar jails are the most overcrowded in the country, and prisoners are subjected to inhuman conditions. Yadav claimed that in jail he was beaten so badly that he was unconscious for nearly six hours. Later, he was lodged in solitary confinement for 11 days.

Before him, another Bastar-based journalist, Somaro Nag, a stringer with Rajasthan Patrika, was arrested in July 2015. Nag, who was arrested on charges of aiding Maoists, was acquitted by a local court a year later. Today, while both Yadav and Nag are out of jail, they are not as free as they used to be. While Yadav is occasionally reporting for Navbharat, Nag has left journalism completely and is running a small shop in his village. Like Nag, two more journalists from the region, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaisawal who were arrested in March 2016, no longer practice journalism.

“No one is interested in doing journalism in Bastar,” says Tameshwar Sinha, a young freelance journalist based in Raipur. Sinha has been regularly visiting Bastar and reporting about the issues there for several Hindi newspapers and magazines. “Bastar is not journalist-friendly, hence it becomes very difficult for local journalists to report about the issues there,” he told The Wire. According to Sinha, while journalists are facing problems from both sides – the state as well as Maoists – it is the state and its machinery which has made it difficult for journalists to report from Bastar. “Whenever I go to the field, my identity is questioned by the police,” said Sinha. “At times, I have to conceal my identity of a journalist.” As per a report published by media watchdog website The Hoot in 2017, police took action against 13 journalists in Chhattisgarh, the highest in the country.

“Given the situation, no one wants to take the risk when it comes to reporting the truth,” Prabhat Singh (who was arrested in March 2016), a former reporter for ETV and Patrika daily, told The Wire. When asked if the situation has improved now, he said, “Not really”, adding, “only faces have changed but the situation is as bad as it used to be. Journalists are still targeted by both state as well as non-state actors.”

“You don’t hear of arrests like earlier because journalists have been silenced. And those still speaking are being targeted systematically,” alleged Singh, citing the latest case against Kamal Shukla. Recently, a case of sedition has been registered against Shukla, who is editor of the Bhumkal Samachar newspaper published from Kanker. According to Singh, while the case is ostensibly for sharing a cartoon, that is just an excuse. “The case against Shukla is registered because he has been writing and speaking about the plight of Adivasis in Bastar, cases of fake encounters in the region and attacks on journalists and activists,” he added.  

Apart from the Bastar region, there have also been reports of attacks on journalists in other areas of the state. Last year, veteran journalist and former staffer of BBC Hindi and Amar Ujala, Vinod Verma was arrested from NCR by the Chhattisgarh police on charges of extortion and allegations of blackmail. Incidentally, Verma was one of the members of the Editor Guilds team which visited Bastar to investigate the attack on journalists in the region.  

Given the permanent nature of attacks on journalists in the state, there has been demand for a separate legislation to protect journalists. Shukla is at the forefront of the campaign demanding the legislation, under the banner of ‘Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti’. In 2016, the Chhattisgarh state chapter of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in consultation with several journalists and lawyers, proposed a draft act for the protection of journalists and human rights defenders in the state. This was done in the backdrop of promise made by state chief minister Raman Singh that there would be a law for the protection of journalists in the state. A committee was also formed by the government to look in to the grievances of journalists. More than one year has passed but there is no news about what is happening with the committee, while journalists are still being attacked on a regular basis.