Chandigarh: After the Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab summoned the editor-in-chief of the Punjabi newspaper Ajit last week in a vigilance inquiry, the ruling party has been accused of arm-twisting the media to bend it in the state government’s favour.
Vernacular media in Punjab has a large influence over rural areas. Daily Ajit, published from Jalandhar, is said to be among the largest Punjabi dailies circulated in the state.
Senior journalist Baltej Pannu, who currently is director, media relations in the Punjab Chief Minister’s Office, denied any political vendetta as alleged in this case by staffers of Ajit as well as opposition parties and their leaders.
He told The Wire that the issue was about funds embezzlement of a memorial constructed during SAD-BJP government of which he was made lifetime chairman. The editor has been asked to join the investigation. If he is clean he will come out of it, said Pannu, adding that to imply anything other than this is completely wrong.
Ajit editor Barjinder Singh Hamdard, who was summoned in connection with an ongoing probe related to the alleged misuse of funds during the building of Rs 315-crore Jang-E-Azadi Memorial at Kartarpur in Jalandhar, has reportedly played a key role in the conception and construction of the project. The project was meant to honour the sacrifices made by Indians, particularly Punjabis, for India’s independence.
He, however, resigned last month as member secretary of the foundation as well as president of the managing committee running this Memorial, citing mistreatment by the AAP government. He claimed the government was maligning the name of the memorial by sending police and vigilance teams, reported The Indian Express.
Ajit state bureau head Harkewal Singh told The Wire that Hamdard, who was summoned on May 29, could not appear that day since he was not available. But Singh criticised the Punjab government action, saying that his editor was unnecessarily dragged into this matter. He was nowhere involved in financial dealings of the project’s execution, Singh said. Hamdard was working in an honorary role to manage the site through a foundation whose ex-officio CEO is the district collector, Jalandhar.
He also claimed that state had been arm-twisting the newspaper ever since AAP came to power in Punjab in order to get favourable coverage. “But we are an independent media outlet answerable to our readers. Till today, there is not even a single news story of ours which this government had contradicted. But they are exerting all sorts of indirect pressure on us,” he claimed.
While Hamdard could not be reached for comments, he wrote a letter earlier in March to Punjab governor Banwari Lal Purohit alleging that the Punjab government has banned the entry of Ajit Samachar staff reporters, special reporters, cameramen and videographers during the budget session in the state assembly.
He further stated that the Punjab government has ordered all departments that not even a small tender notice should get published in the Ajit Group of publications.
Barjinder Singh also pointed out in his letter to the Punjab governor that state police officials in Punjab are threatening him and trying to implicate him in false cases on the orders of the state government.
AAP’s ‘attacks on freedom of press’
The Chandigarh Press Club, with more than 1,000 working journalists as members, gave a memorandum to the Punjab governor on May 19 highlighting regular attacks on the freedom of press.
It mentioned that recently Twitter accounts of several journalists, commentators, and media organisations including the independent verticals related to Punjab were withheld (during the police operation to arrest Khalistan sympathiser Amritpal Singh).
Asking the governor to take up the matter with the state government and stop the unnecessary harassment of journalists in Punjab, it added that the Punjab police even went to the extent to curb free speech by arresting some independent journalists and raiding their houses.
The Ajit matter is now the latest episode in AAP’s constant tussle with the media.
Political parties in Punjab are already in action mode against the AAP government. On Monday, May 29, Punjab Congress leadership passed a resolution condemning the AAP government’s action on the Ajit editor, calling it oppression and intimidation of independent media institutions to silence constructive criticism and dissent.
“We appeal to all the political and non-political organisations to assemble at the Ajit Group office, Jalandhar at 1:00 pm on June 1, 2023 to show solidarity with S. Barjinder Singh Hamdard ji and protect the democratic ideals in Punjab,” Punjab leader of opposition and senior Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa tweeted.
Punjab state Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring also said that the Aam Aadmi Party government has been using numerous tactics to silence journalists.
Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal also raised his voice, saying that the persecution of Hamdard and Ajit newspaper is just the beginning. The real game is to frighten and suppress independent media in Punjab, especially those who act as the voice of the Khalsa Panth, people and Punjab, Badal said. He said the Akali Dal will attend the June 1 meeting to express solidarity with Hamdard, Ajit and the freedom of the press