We may have different opinions about how the press reports or doesn’t report a particular incident but we all have to agree on the fundamental principle of press freedom and its inseparability from the idea of democracy. Without a free press, there would be a monopolization of information specifically, a state-backed monopolization, which would restrict citizens from forming reasoned opinions about society at large. Thus, regardless of how one feels about the media, we need the media because that is our only source of alternative information, information which often gets buried in the coffers of the forces desperate to stay in power.
Throughout history, people in power have tried to suppress information which may put a dent in their ability to stay in power. India witnessed such subjugation of press during the emergency but it would be ill-informed for people to assume that India has attained press freedom. While the Lutyens media might not have noticed, West Bengal has witnessed a massive surge in attacks towards journalists, their only crime is responsibly doing their duty.
The attacks have been happening sporadically for a long time now but the frequency of such attacks has gone up considerably in the run-up to the panchayat elections, which are to be held in the very near future in West Bengal. It all started around 11 a.m on 9th of April when Biplob Mondal, a photographer from the Times of India Kolkata bureau, took out his phone to take a few pictures of the nomination proceedings in front of the administrative building in South 24 Parganas. Two men approached him and asked to see his phone when Mondal explained that he was from the press the two men called up few more men and started thrashing Mondal with their bare hands. The journalist was coerced into deleting all the pictures he took later the men took him to a nearby village and stripped him. Mondal told CPJ –
“Later, they took me to a small village near the administration building where they stripped me of my clothes, took photos and threatened to publish them on the internet”.
The incompetence of the state apparatus to provide safety to journalists does not end there, on the same day another journalist was allegedly beaten up by a gang of 30 to 40 people in front of the same building. Manas Chattopadhyay, a reporter from the ETV Bharat regional channel was hit in the head with a stick because he was taking pictures. The assailants also snatched the mobile form the reporter. The Police were just standing there as Chattopadhyay was asked by the concerned police officer to leave the area and the officer even called a taxi for him but failed to take any action against the assailants. The press commission has asked the West Bengal government to provide a report on the proceedings of the 9th on 14th of April. Journalists also took to the streets on the 11th April protesting against attacks on their colleagues.
Despite all of this, again on 23rd April attacks occurred and it followed the same pattern of the previously mentioned cases. On 23rd April, Pragya Saha, a reporter from a regional news channel was covering the nomination proceedings outside the Alipur DM office. She was trying to get information about her assignment and as she was going about her business, a few women accompanied by a few men allegedly approached her and started to intimidate her. To deter these assailants Pragya stated that she is a journalist trying to do her job but to no avail. They abducted her and allegedly took her to a nearby building where they kept intimidating and harassing her all the while constantly asking if there are any photos or videos on her phone. Pragya’s phone was snatched from her but they failed to find anything.
The police in the meantime started searching for her. The assailants got the news and allegedly moved her from that building to a nearby location just behind the Alipur jail. There, the reporter’s phone was formatted by the assailants just in case they may miss something. Police tried tracking her phone and found that she was being held up around Bhawanipur. One would expect that the police would take the initiative to search and rescue her but here the assailants dropped her off in front of Hazra where a police van picked her up. She was missing for over two hours.
Pragya Saha had narrated her ordeal on the TV channel she works for, yet, it is staggering that none of the mainstream media channels and portals, that pretend to be the harbingers of free press picked up the issue.
In front of the same building, on the same day, another journalist was allegedly beaten up mercilessly. A senior journalist from Anandabazar Patrika, the largest Bengali daily in India, was beaten black and blue for doing his job. Two bike-borne assailants allegedly took the journalist to a back ally in the adjacent area and refused to let him go, it was only after other journalists and the Police confronted these two men, that they bailed.
One has to stand in awe of the silence observed by the national media about these incidents. People who more than often feel like press freedom is being eroded in this country did not utter a word about this grave injustice being done to their colleagues. This lopsided view of press freedom may force the mainstream media into paying a price they can not afford.
This is not the first time, the West Bengal government has indulged in censorship, during the Darjeeling protest a channel was taken off the air. An FIR was lodged against a Zee News Anchor for reporting communal tensions on the rise in the state. For a state which has produced so many men of integrity, greatness and many world-class statesmen, it is a matter of shame that democratic progressive principles are being abused and freedom of the press being trampled in broad daylight.