No two ways about it, FIR against Zee for Dhulagarh reporting is attack on press freedom

In Dhulagarh, a principle is at stake – that of free and unfettered access to journalists to report.
No two ways about it, FIR against Zee for Dhulagarh reporting is attack on press freedom
No two ways about it, FIR against Zee for Dhulagarh reporting is attack on press freedom

This is a very straight and simple issue that involves press freedom and I will try and keep this piece short. It concerns the First Information Report (FIR) against Zee TV and its news editor Sudhir Chaudhary. They have been reporting on the riots which took place in Dhulagarh (near Kolkata) on December 12, 2016. Chaudhary goes for the gutteral. That is his style. In addition to reporting on the riots, he has taken a stand on the failure of India’s national media to report on the issue because in his view the mob that unleashed the violence comprised Muslims who targetted Hindus. The implication is had it been the other way round, we would hear more, much more. His reportage has earned him the ire of the West Bengal government which has filed an FIR under section 153A for promoting enmity. This is a non-bailable offence.

I am not concerned about Chaudhary’s interpretation of the riots and commentary which are his own. I was equally unconcerned about NDTV’s view of the recent one-day ban on it for showing sensitive images of India’s counter-offensive in Kashmir. 

Individual reporters and media organisations have many masters. All governments lie and the attempt to get journalists to buy their versions is constant. The higher the stakes, the greater the obfuscation. I find any government interference in the work of a journalist questionable except when it concerns national security. In Dhulagarh, a principle is at stake – that of free and unfettered access to journalists to report. If the reporters are biased or do not tell the whole story, governments have all the powers in their hands to state their versions and let people be the judge.

It has been suggested that the FIR against Zee has been filed by a ‘stooge’ of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party in West Bengal and not the government, unlike the NDTV issue where the FIR was filed by the state. I have been a journalist long enough to distinguish between a fig leaf and a leaf. If the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC willed, there would be no FIR. The Delhi-based website Newslaundry has started reporting about Dhulagarh. Their reporters have spoken to journalists covering the region from Kolkata as well as to Zee. By all accounts journalists have had difficulty in reporting from Dhulagarh in what comes across as unexplained censorship if it can be called thus. Access is limited and residents have been sending images and voice recordings over the social media. In other words, Zee had a scoop as it managed to travel to the troubled spot, file reports and remain unhurt so far.

The NL’s journalists have quoted conversations in Bengali that speak of grave distress and impending attacks. On December 12th, according to NL, processions marking Milad-un-Nabi or Nabi Diwas which normally makes its way through Muslim areas was routed through a number of Hindu neighbourhoods. Stray comments were made, clashes broke out, shops were gutted and according to NL for "approximately four hours, Dhulagarh burned".

Read the NL reports here and here.

I find it shameful that the West Bengal government is silent on Dhulagarh. I find it scandalous that a reporter doing his or her job is slapped with a vague FIR which by all accounts is neither specific nor precise. I find it deeply regrettable that we in the media have not condemned the West Bengal government with one voice – the Editor’s Guild of India and the Press Council are tightlipped too. Politicians have also not called out the riots in Dhulagarh with their usual sound barrier-blasting debates. Is it for fear that if they do, they will be called out as well ?

We at The News Minute make it a point to call out government interference whenever and wherever we see it. What happens to others can happen to us one day – there are no small and big reporters. Out there we are all doing our job. Till such time as we continue to look at reportage from the perspective of a government – any government – we will remain divided as journalists, commentators, columnists and thought leaders. Till such time as we pontificate on who is killing whom without asking why anyone is being killed at all, we will remain ethically inferior and pliable. Our selective outrage and silence more than suggests that we are compromised. But I see hope in this hypocrisy.

That hope springs not from centres of power but from people who will use social media to send their messages out to the world. I see reporters all around India destroying status quo and moth-ridden narratives with the help of technology. What our politicians and their subalterns fail to see is that the very technologies they promote to make India a powerful nation will be used against them if they come in the way of people’s aspirations.


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