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Republic Bangla journalist Santu Pan, arrested for Sandeshkhali reporting, gets bail; Calcutta HC slams police for arresting journalists instead of real culprits, stays probe

The Calcutta High Court said there is no clear explanation of the allegations against Republic Bangla reporter Santu Pan. The court came down heavily on the Mamata Banerjee government, asking "Why this FIR shouldn't be quashed".

On Thursday (22nd February), Santu Pan, the journalist of the TV news channel Republic Bangla who was arrested by the West Bengal police,- was granted bail by the Calcutta High Court. The court has also stayed the probe against him.

The High Court issued the order after a marathon hearing, where senior counsel Mahesh Jethmalani argued for Republic TV.

The Calcutta High Court said there is no clear explanation of the allegations against Republic Bangla reporter Santu Pan. The court came down heavily on the Mamata Banerjee government, asking “Why this FIR shouldn’t be quashed”.

The court said, “Feel sorry for police officers. You have not been able to arrest real culprits. You are after an innocent journalist while the people who are not caught are making a mockery of the law. You want to put all your energy after this innocent journalist”.

Republic TV termed the judgement a victory for press freedom.

Santu Pan was arrested while he was reporting from the ground in Sandeshkhali where several Hindu women were allegedly raped and sexually exploited by the Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shahjahan and his accomplices. Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani appeared in the court to represent Republic TV. The TV channel has called this decision the victory of freedom of speech and that the court has upheld the right to report.

Santu Pan was taken to an unknown place a day before the court order

The arrested journalist of Republic Bangla TV Santu Pan was moved from Sandeskhali police station to an undisclosed location on 21st February late in the night. The men escorting him had covered faces and their uniforms had no insignia.

An FIR against Suman De of the ABP Ananda was also filed in this series of police harassment of journalists reporting Sandeshkhali. He is still under arrest.

Santu Pan was targeted for asking tough questions to the TMC government?

Notably, on Monday, Bengal police forcefully detained and apprehended the Republic TV journalist who was actively reporting on the Sandeshkhali incident. “I’m being taken into custody by the police. They’re arresting me for conducting interviews with the mothers of Sandeshkhali,” expressed Santu Pan, the reporter with Republic Bangla, as he was forcefully escorted by the police at the Sandeshkhali ferry terminal.

In the footage, numerous heavily armed police officers were observed shoving and rough-handling the journalist before forcibly removing him. Besides his relentless coverage of Sandeshkhali, Pan is known for asking hard-hitting questions to TMC strongman Abhishek Banerjee.

Santu Pan’s wife had also approached the NHRC over his arrest

A day after Bengal police forcefully detained and apprehended a Republic TV journalist Santu Pan, who was actively reporting on the Sandeshkhali incident, his wife approached the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC).

The complaint copy details how the Mamata Banerjee government is stifling the voices of journalists and the media that has been trying to bring forth accounts of multiple women victimised by TMC leader Shahjahan Sheikh and his aides in Sandeshkhali.

The complaint read, “On the evening of 19 February 2024, my husband and Republic Bangla reporter Santu Pan was arrested with an outright attempt to throttle the media from reporting on the accounts of crimes against women in Sandeshkhali. Republic Bangla’s reporting team has brought forth accounts of multiple women in Sandeshkhali alleging politically institutionalised mass rape, political protection of the perpetrators and an environment of fear instilled into the victims.”

“My husband Santu Pan had conducted a live show from the ground on the Republic Bangla channel, which has consistently been reporting from Sandeshkhali as part of its ongoing investigative reportage on crimes against women in West Bengal. Hours after the live telecast, with outright malafide intent and sheer malice in law, Santu Pan was not allowed to leave Sandeshkhali,” the complaint added.

The complaint further stated that the video footage clearly showed how Santu Pan was surrounded by many law enforcement agents and taken inside an unauthorized detention facility without being given any prior warning.

“Neither me, as his wife nor his legal team, were given any intimation of any notice/FIR/illegal detention. I have only been able to access the Arrest Memo after seeing the horrific visuals of my husband being physically assaulted by the local police and dragged to a police station. Santu Pan’s arrest saw local police encircling him and physically assaulting him, before taking him into illegal custody and arrest. Furthermore, it is established in the LIVE TV footage that Santu Pan continued to exercise his right to report despite being physically assaulted by the local police at the time of arrest,” it further stated.

The background of the controversy

On 8th February this year, hundreds of women in Sandeshkhali took to the streets to protest against land grabbing, non-payment of wages and sexual violence committed by Trinamool Congress goon Sheikh Shahjahan and his two aides Shiba Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

The women attacked Shahjahan’s illicitly obtained properties and set fire to a poultry farm owned by Shiba Prasad Hazra. They also surrounded the Sandeshkali police station and demanded the immediate arrest of the trio. The agitation in the village lasted for 3 days.

On Friday (17th February), the police arrested TMC leader Shibu Prasad Hazra over land grabbing and sexual exploitation of women in Sandeshkhali. The primary accused Sheikh Shahjahan, is still on the run from the law enforcement authorities.

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