August 29, 2001
Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling
Government of Sikkim
Gangtok 737 103
Via Facsimile: 91-3592-22851
Dear Chief Minister Chamling:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by last week’s arrest of Rajesh Bhattarai, editor and publisher of the Nepali-language daily Aajo Bholi. Although Bhattarai has been granted interim bail on medical grounds, he must appear by August 31 before a judge in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, to face a criminal charge.
At around 1 p.m. on August 20, an officer from the crime branch of the Sikkim police arrived at the Aajo Bholi office in Siliguri, in the neighboring state of West Bengal, and arrested Bhattarai under the provisions of Section 153(a) of the Indian Penal Code. Section 153(a) states that anyone whose words, “whether spoken or written,” promote “disharmony” or “feelings of enmity” between different communities may face up to three years in prison.
Sources at Aajo Bholi told CPJ that the charge arises from an article that appeared in the paper more than a year ago. On May 3, 2000, Aajo Bholi reported that you had described the flag of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) as a symbol of murder during a May Day speech two days earlier.
We understand that you deny ever having made this statement. Sources at Aajo Bholi told CPJ that in response to complaints from you and other political leaders in Sikkim, they have published three separate apologies for the article.
During the 1980s, the GNLF led an armed movement for the creation of an independent ethnic Gorkha state called Gorkhaland. In 1988, the group signed a peace accord with national and state government officials that resulted in the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which is currently headed by GNLF leader Subhash Ghisingh. The council was intended to give greater autonomy to the Gorkha people, who originally come from Nepal but represent a significant percentage of the population in West Bengal and Sikkim.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ condemns the criminal prosecution of Rajesh Bhattarai. CPJ believes that no journalist should be imprisoned for his or her work. In instances where a journalist has committed an error, the publication of an apology or clarification should be an adequate remedy. More serious cases, such as those involving allegations of defamation, may warrant legal action, but we believe even these cases should be resolved at the civil level.
If authorities think that a journalist’s work presents a serious threat to state security, the government should first prove that imminent harm is the likely result of a particular report. There seems to be no justification for Bhattarai’s arrest fifteen months after his newspaper published a report that, while controversial, did not affect public order in any way.
CPJ calls on Sikkimese authorities to cease their unjust persecution of Rajesh Bhattarai. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.
Ann K. Cooper