Protests Raised Against Arrest of Chhattisgarh Journalists

The police accuse Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag of links to the banned Maoists but rights groups say they have been targeted for their reporting.

New Delhi: Journalist and civil rights groups across India have come out in support of Bastar-based reporters Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, who have been arrested by the Chhattisgarh police – which accuses them of links with the Naxals and of involvement in operations against the security forces.

Yadav, who writes for various Hindi newspapers including Dainik Navbharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh, was arrested on September 29 and subsequently charged with taking part in an encounter with the security forces for which 18 villagers are already in prison.

Considered a fearless journalist, he had been booked under the Chhattisgarh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, or Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The district police claim he had supported the Maoists in an encounter that took place with the police in Darbha on August 21. The Bastar district Superintendent of Police Ajay Yadav even went on record to state that he did not consider Santosh Yadav to be a journalist. He said the police suspected his links with Maoist leader Shankar in the area.

According to Amnesty International India, Santosh has been arrested for being “involved in rioting, criminal conspiracy, murder, and being part of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) armed group, among other offences.” Both the PSA and UAPA are special laws which make it difficult for the arrested person to secure bail.

“Draconian laws are being used to silence journalists reporting from areas of conflict between security forces and Maoist armed groups in Chhattisgarh. Reporting the different sides of a story is a legitimate exercise of a journalist’s right to freedom of expression. The recent arrests in Chhattisgarh are a disturbing sign of the state government’s disdain for media freedom. These attempts at intimidating the media must end.” said Abhirr VP, a campaigner at Amnesty International India.

Santosh’s advocate, Isha Khandelwal, told Amnesty that the charges were fabricated, and that the journalist was being targeted for his reporting on human rights abuses by the police against adivasis.

“The lawyer said Santosh Yadav has been a contact person for national and international journalists and was crucial in getting media attention to the plight of adivasis in the conflict-torn region. He has also been instrumental in helping adivasis get legal aid,” it said.

A father of three girls, Santosh had previously faced harassment by the authorities and was even stripped and beaten up by the state police in June, Amnesty International India said.

As for the police, it noted that SRP Kalluri, the Inspector General of Police of Bastar, had claimed that “due process has been followed in the arrest”.

However, the global watchdog said, “journalists in Bastar say they are regularly targeted for their work. In July, the police arrested Somaru Nag, an adivasi journalist, for allegedly being involved in armed robbery and arson, among other offences. His family has alleged that he has been tortured in custody.”

Draconian laws

In view of these allegations, it demanded that “the Chhattisgarh government must stop using abusive laws to harass, intimidate and repress journalists in Bastar.”

Rights groups have also claimed that just as the UAPA uses sweeping and overly broad definitions of ‘acts of terrorism’ and ‘membership’ of ‘unlawful’ organisations, the Chhattisgarh PSA contains broad and vaguely worded definitions of ‘unlawful activity’. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has called for the repeal of both laws.

Meanwhile, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has said that Santosh was allegedly facing police pressure to work as a informer. It mentioned how its bulletin published in August 2015, more than a month before Santosh’s arrest, had pointed out that the arrested journalist was one of the first reporters to reach the spot of the Darbha valley attack on a Congress party convoy in May 2013 and so the police presumed that he collaborated with the Maoists.

“In mid-2014, the police began threatening him. One night, they [police] arrived at his house and detained him. The police ordered Santosh to take Rs.5 lakh to catch Maoists and bring them to the police but he refused to do so. For last one year, Santosh had been living in a climate of fear with police spreading rumours that they were out to get him,” said the PUCL bulletin.

But despite the pressure, PUCL said Santosh refused to relent. Its Chhattisgarh unit secretary, Sudha Bharadwaj said Santosh was taken to Darbha police station in June this year and stripped. He was trying to help villagers who had been held for being Naxal supporters and wanted to publish their story but was arrested before he could do so.

Santosh’s wife Poonam charged that he was being implicated in the case. She claimed that the police had threatened to kill him in an encounter but he continued to work for the tribal population.

On its part, the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights has claimed that the Chhattisgarh police is also creating legal hurdles for the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group – which provides representation to local adivasis who are harassed as Naxal offenders – “particularly since legal proceedings help expose the fictitious narrative of the chargesheet.”

“ This,” it said, “challenges the sanitised version of ‘Operation Greenhunt’, by showing arrests’ andsurrenders’ as a measure of its success.”

It said Santosh was “taken away by the Darbha Police on night of 29 September 2015, on the grounds that the IG (Bastar) wanted to meet him. Through his reportage, Yadav has exposed many of the stage managed ‘surrender’ drama of Maoists organized by the Bastar Police and had refused to work as ‘police informer’.”

While a section of Chhattisgarh journalists held a demonstration on October 10 to press for the release of Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag – who is was a stringer-cum-news agent with the Rajasthan Patrika and was arrested on July 16 for allegedly keeping a look out for police while a group burnt a crusher plant employed in road construction – the demand for the release of these two journalists reverberated in New Delhi on Saturday as the Delhi Union of Journalists also raised the issue.

The DUJ also called for an “end to victimisation of journalists in conflict areas where they are caught between the conflicting demands of rebel groups and state forces”.