Attacks on the Press 2001: India

India’s free press is perhaps the strongest pillar of its democracy, but Indian journalists continued to face numerous challenges in 2001, including physical threats, legal harassment, and more subtle pressures applied by the central government.

In the disputed territory of Kashmir, where fighting between local separatists, foreign fighters, and Indian security forces has long forced journalists to tread carefully in their reporting, the press continued to suffer violent assault. Most of the attacks against journalists documented by CPJ in 2001 were committed by security forces. In January, police beat up Surinder Singh Oberoi, a correspondent for the Agence France-Press news agency, as he was attempting to cover an attack on a security bunker in Srinagar by suspected militant separatists. Soldiers beat up several staff members of the Urdu-language weekly Chattan, one of Kashmir’s most well-respected and widely circulated publications, after unknown assailants threw a grenade at a group of soldiers in Srinagar.

The most spectacular press freedom abuse in Kashmir occurred in May, when Border Security Forces (BSF) attacked at least 16 journalists who were covering the BSF’s attempts to break up a funeral procession held for civilian victims of a suicide bomb attack. BSF troops first assaulted several of the mourners in apparent anger over the previous day’s attack, and then turned on journalists who were covering the action.

The incident was widely publicized, leading Indian authorities to order an inquiry into the assault on the journalists. The formal investigation only got underway at the end of 2001.

Journalistic coverage of Islam can spark fierce protests in Kashmir, which is mostly Muslim. In April, for example, some 5,000 angry demonstrators threw stones at police in Srinagar and set cars ablaze to protest the April 16 edition of Time magazine, which contained an illustration portraying the Prophet Mohammed. (In Islam, it is considered blasphemous to create images of Mohammed.)

Secessionist rebellions in the Northeastern States–Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland–took their toll on the media. Competing groups of separatist militants are active throughout the region, home to numerous ethnic minorities, and have often resorted to violence and intimidation against the press to get their point across.

On September 26, journalists in Manipur went on strike to protest increasingly aggressive attempts by militant groups to influence editorial content. The strike lasted for two weeks, resulting in a total news blackout in Manipur during the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Indian security forces also targeted the press in the Northeastern States though local journalists were often reluctant to publicize these abuses for fear of reprisal. Early in the year, a local journalist in Assam was held incommunicado for two weeks after he interviewed members of the rebel United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). “We want to know who you met, and we want all your notes,” security forces told the reporter, who did not wish to be identified. According to one of the reporter’s colleagues, he was forced in the end to comply with the demand. “He had to buy his freedom with his notes,” the colleague said.

Foreign correspondents were not immune from such harassment. In June, Karin Steinberger, a German editor for the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and Steve McCurry, an American photographer associated with Magnum, were detained by police in Assam while on assignment for the magazine GEO. Local authorities detained the journalists for two days at various locations, accused them of contacting ULFA rebels in neighboring Bhutan, and ultimately ordered them to leave India.

Across India, local politicians used law enforcement agencies to suppress dissent. In June, for example, police in the southern state of Tamil Nadu arrested and assaulted dozens of journalists at the behest of Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha, who was engaged in a broad political crackdown on the main local opposition party.

Party activists also targeted journalists covering political demonstrations. During a strike in Maharashtra State called by labor unions with the support of the Shiv Sena, a militant Hindu organization, about 30 demonstrators in Mumbai beat up Vaibhav Purandare, a reporter for the national daily The Asian Age.

Criminal violence against journalists seemed to decrease last year, although one journalist was killed for his reporting on local corruption in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Moolchand Yadav, a free-lance reporter who regularly contributed to Hindi-language dailies, including Jansatta and Punjab Kesari, was shot dead on the street in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, after writing a series of exposés on land deals in the area.

In general, journalists working for the vernacular press and living outside major urban centers tend to be far more vulnerable to attack. A rare news report about the dangers facing journalists working in regions such as the Bundelkhand, where Yadav was based, noted that reporters “most often receive threats from politicians, the mafia, police, and the district administration.” The article, written by Ajay Uprety of the English-language magazine The Week, reported that of the 250 journalists in the Bundelkhand region, more than half had guns or bodyguards.

Unfortunately, the difficulties facing provincial reporters are compounded by the fact that most elite journalists, especially those who work for the English-language press in media hubs such as Bombay and Bangalore, tend to disregard them as colleagues. Yadav’s assassination, for instance, received far less attention from the national press than did the accidental deaths of four young journalists who were killed in a plane crash along with Congress Party politician Madhav Rao Scindia. Anju Sharma, of The Hindustan Times; Sanjiv Sinha, of The Indian Express; Ranjan Jha and Gopal Bisht, both of the television channel Aaj Tak, died in a tragic accident on September 30 when their chartered plane crashed en route to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where they had planned to attend a Congress Party rally.

Cameraman Vikram Singh Bisht narrowly escaped death during the December 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament by a suicide squad armed with AK-47s, grenades, and other explosive devices. Bisht was struck by a bullet that became embedded in his spinal cord, resulting in partial paralysis. It seemed unlikely he would ever work as a cameraman again.

With the Parliament attack, the Indian government’s efforts to link its fight against militants in Kashmir with the United States’ so-called war on terror began to garner some international support. But India’s threat to go to war with Pakistan, which it blamed for sponsoring the militants suspected of carrying out the attack, was greeted mostly with alarm. India’s often-nationalistic press contributed to the jingoistic atmosphere: the BBC reported that the Indian media were on balance far more hawkish than the average Indian on the street.

India’s own anti-terror war had not had any negative impact on the local press by year’s end. The first draft of a proposed anti-terrorism ordinance included a controversial clause that would have made it a criminal offense not to provide the government with “information about offenses.” After loud protests by the country’s leading journalists, who complained that the legislation would force journalists to become police informants, the government dropped the egregious provision.

Authorities continued to use existing laws against journalists. One penal code clause sets criminal penalties for promoting “disharmony” or “feelings of enmity” between different communities. The charge tends to be invoked at the whim of local officials, as in the case of Rajesh Bhattarai, a West Bengal editor who was arrested by police from neighboring Sikkim in August. Bhattarai, who ran a small Nepali-language daily, was accused of stirring unrest by publishing an article that embarrassed Sikkim’s chief minister. He was released following protests by CPJ.

Indian judges also have abused contempt of court provisions to punish journalists for criticizing the judiciary in print. The biggest contempt case of the year involved Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, who was charged with contempt, along with two other activists, for protesting the Supreme Court’s authorization of continued construction on a controversial dam project.

The protests in question were made verbally during public demonstrations and not through the media. But as Roy pointed out in her affidavit, the Supreme Court’s actions indicate a “disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it.”

On August 28, the Supreme Court dismissed the contempt petition against Roy’s colleagues, but issued a second contempt notice against Roy for the remarks made in her affidavit. This trial–from which journalists were barred–was ongoing at year’s end.

Similarly disturbing issues were raised by a lesser-known contempt case filed against Vineet Narain, founding editor of the muckraking newspaper Kalchakra. The Jammu and Kashmir High Court served Narain with a contempt notice after he published an article that questioned the role of Justice T.S. Doabia in resolving a land dispute. Narain’s case, too, was pending at year’s end.

The government used other administrative tools to stifle the press. At the end of May, tax inspectors raided the leading news magazine Outlook and spent 26 hours ransacking its offices. Though the target of the raid was ostensibly the Raheja Group, which owns Outlook, the raid followed the magazine’s publication of a series of articles examining corporate influence in the prime minister’s office. Agents also confiscated property from the editorial department, including reporters’ notebooks and computer discs.

The investigation was ongoing at year’s end, according to sources at Outlook, who added that the magazine’s editorial content had been toned down in response to the government pressure.

In March, a corruption scandal exposed by the news Web site at first threatened to bring down the government. Tehelka caught senior officials on camera accepting bribes from journalists posing as arms dealers. The government appointed a special commission that seemed more interested in investigating the news outlet’s questionable reporting methods than in following up on its dramatic revelations of government corruption. Although Defense Minister George Fernandes was among the senior officials who resigned in the wake of the exposé, the prime minister reinstated him in October, even as the commission of inquiry continued its probe.

January 19

Surinder Singh Oberoi, Agence France-Presse

Oberoi, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, was beaten by police officer G.M. Dar while covering an attack on a security bunker in Srinagar, Kashmir, by suspected militant Muslims. After the attackers threw a grenade at the bunker, killing one person and injuring nine others, security forces cordoned off the area and ordered journalists to leave the scene.

Dar struck Oberoi repeatedly with his rifle. The officer only stopped the assault after other journalists at the scene intervened. Minutes later, however, when Oberoi approached another officer to complain, Dar started hitting him again.

Local journalists say they often bear the brunt of the security forces’ anger and frustration when they arrive on the scene of an attack. In this particular grenade attack, two officers were among the nine injured.

Oberoi said he did not know why he had been targeted. Dar later apologized for the attack.

May 10

Aijaz Rahi, The Associated Press
Sanam Aijaz, Eenadu Television
Merajuddin, Associated Press Television
Syed Shujaat Bukhari, The Hindu
Nissar Ahmed Bhat, The Hindu
Sheikh Mushtaq, Reuters
Fayaz Kabli, Reuters
S. Irfan, Press Trust of India
Fayaz Ahmad, United News of India
Naseer Ahmad, Zee TV
Bilal Ahmad Bhat, Asian News International
S. Tariq, New Delhi Television
Tauseef, Agence France-Presse
Javid Ahmad Shah, Indian Express
Sayed Muzaffar Hussain, Srinagar Times
B. Kumar, Eenadu Television

At least 16 Indian journalists were attacked by Indian Border Security Force (BSF) troops in the Kashmir town of Magam. The journalists were covering the aftermath of the previous day’s suicide bombing against a BSF camp. The explosion killed 11 people, eight of them civilians, according to local press sources.

The journalists included Rahi, a photographer for The Associated Press; Aijaz, of Hyderabad-based Eenadu Television (ETV); Merajuddin (who, like many Indians, uses only one name), a cameraman for Associated Press Television News; Bukhari, a correspondent for The Hindu newspaper; Nissar Ahmed Bhat, photographer for The Hindu; Mushtaq, a Reuters correspondent; Kabli, a Reuters photographer; Irfan, of the Press Trust of India; Fayaz Ahmad, of the United News of India; Naseer Ahmad, of Zee TV; Bilal Ahmad Bhat, of Asian News International; Tariq, of New Delhi Television; Tauseef, of Agence France-Presse; Shah, of the Indian Express newspaper; Hussain, of the daily Srinagar Times; and Kumar, a cameraman for ETV.

The journalists were covering a funeral procession for three of the civilian victims when a BSF convoy approached the crowd. Members of BSF’s Battalion 194 got out of their vehicles and began firing in the air and attacking members of the funeral procession, according to journalists at the scene.

As the crowd scattered, BSF soldiers turned on journalists documenting the assault, beating them with rifle butts and batons and destroying their camera equipment.

Some journalists took shelter in the homes of local residents. Others fled to the Magam police station, where they managed to contact colleagues in the capital, Srinagar, about 30 kilometers (17 miles) to the south. After these colleagues alerted the BSF headquarters in Srinagar, BSF deputy inspector general R.P. Singh left immediately for Magam.

When Singh arrived at the police station, he asked the journalists there to take him to the scene of the attack and explain what had happened. Four journalists escorted him to the site and also began searching for any camera equipment that could be recovered.

Local BSF commander Deputy Inspector General A.K. Mallick then approached the journalists and told them they had no right to enter the area without his permission. Mallick quickly became enraged when this was disputed. Mallick threatened twice to shoot the journalists before ordering his forces to attack them, according to CPJ sources. Some 20 BSF soldiers then descended on the four journalists and bludgeoned them with rifle butts.

Singh called a halt to the attack, but Mallick challenged Singh’s authority, saying, “Who are you? This is my operational area.” Mallick then threatened once again to shoot all four journalists, accusing them of being “anti-national” Pakistan sympathizers.

The journalists returned to the safety of the Magam police station, by which time other officials had arrived from Srinagar.

Among the most seriously injured of the journalists was Kumar, who was severely beaten and thrown into a stream. Kumar suffered head injuries requiring 15 stitches, according to sources at ETV. Rahi received a hairline fracture to his knee when he was hit with a wooden board.

On May 17, CPJ sent a letter to Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani asking him to ensure that the official inquiry into the matter was thorough and impartial, and that the findings were made public. However, the government never released the results of the preliminary inquiry. Local journalists told CPJ that the Indian Border Security Force began a formal investigation into the incident only at the end of 2001. This investigation was ongoing at the end of the year.

June 1

Vineet Narain, Kalchakra

A division bench of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court ordered the arrest of Narain, founding editor of the investigative journal Kalchakra, for his failure to appear in court to face a contempt-of-court charge.

The court declared Narain an “absconder” and directed a New Delhi district magistrate to attach the property of Kalchakra, as well as a printing press where the journal was produced. The High Court scheduled the next hearing for July 13 in Jammu.

Narain said he never received official notice of the order, which was published in local newspapers in Jammu, and also argued that his life would be in serious danger if he traveled to Jammu and Kashmir State.

The contempt case arose from a paragraph in an article published in the December 16, 2000, edition of Kalchakra. It questioned the role of Jammu and Kashmir High Court justice T.S. Doabia in resolving a land dispute and suggested that Doabia had been unduly influenced by his friendship with Indian Supreme Court chief justice A.S. Anand, who formerly served as chief justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

The court said that the paragraph “appears to be per se contempt of the court as it has the tendency of bringing the administration of justice to disrepute by attributing disparaging motives and bias to a sitting judge of this court.”

In addition, the February 16, December 1, and December 16, 2000, editions of Kalchakra contained allegations that Chief Justice Anand had helped secure legal victories for close family members and associates in various property disputes.

Narain believes that his contempt case was brought at the behest of Chief Justice Anand.

In response to the High Court summons, Narain filed two petitions with the Supreme Court of India. The first petition asked that the contempt case be dropped altogether. In the event that the case was pursued, Narain also petitioned that the venue be transferred to New Delhi in light of security concerns in Srinagar.

The Supreme Court ordered Narain to petition the Jammu and Kashmir High Court directly for a change of venue. The High Court eventually agreed to transfer the case not to New Delhi but to Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Narain said he had been threatened by militant groups in Kashmir who were angered by his investigations into their underground funding networks. Narain is well known in India for exposing the so-called hawala scam, a US$18 million bribery scandal that implicated some of the country’s leading politicians. He reported that some of those allegedly involved in channeling payoffs to politicians were also transferring money to militant groups in Kashmir.

The Indian government acknowledged the potential threat to Narain’s safety by providing him with special security protection between 1996 and 1998, at the height of efforts to prosecute those involved in the hawala scandal.

Narain said that in the current case, local officials largely ignored his repeated requests for protection in Kashmir. He also informed the High Court that security concerns prevented him from traveling to Kashmir to face the contempt charge.

On July 6, CPJ and Human Rights Watch issued a joint letter addressed to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, noting that the prosecution of Vineet Narain represented an abuse of the contempt of court law, which should never be used to shield members of the judiciary from scrutiny by the press.

CPJ urged the prime minister to order an inquiry into possible political motivations behind Narain’s prosecution and to ensure that police did not arrest Narain for having missed previous court dates in Jammu, given that he had clearly conveyed his security concerns to the various courts.

On August 4, twelve Jammu police officers came to Narain’s office to arrest him (the journalist was not in Delhi at the time). The court also placed advertisements in Delhi newspapers declaring Narain a “proclaimed offender.” CPJ sent another letter to Prime Minister Vajpayee on August 8, describing the ongoing harassment.

In December, the Jammu High Court canceled all orders of arrest, but scheduled the next hearing date for February 5, 2002, in Jammu.

June 27

G. Suresh, Sun TV
Chennai Journalists

Police arrested G. Suresh, reporter and cameraman for Sun TV in Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu. Suresh was one of nearly 20 journalists who went to a government-owned rice storage facility to report on a grain scandal. After the broadcast of Suresh’s report, which embarrassed the Tamil Nadu state government, police went to Suresh’s home and arrested him on assorted charges ranging from trespassing to physical intimidation.

Sun TV is owned by relatives of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister and the main rival to current chief minister Jayaram Jayalalitha.

Senior journalists in the state capital, Chennai, immediately organized a petition to secure Suresh’s release. On June 28, a group of about 50 journalists assembled outside the office of Chief Minister Jayalalitha to present the petition, but she refused to accept it. Police then ordered the journalists to disperse and beat several with batons in an effort to break up the demonstration.

On the morning of June 29, a group of 150 journalists gathered to march toward the State Secretariat to protest Suresh’s arrest, as well as their rough treatment the previous day. Police dressed in riot gear and armed with tear gas and water pistols halted the demonstration and arrested all the journalists. They were detained at Vepery Police Station for about seven hours. They agreed to be released only after receiving confirmation that Suresh had been released on bail.

On July 3, CPJ issued a statement condemning a whole series of attacks against the press that accompanied a political crackdown in Tamil Nadu. Suresh’s arrest was the first of several state government attempts to intimidate local journalists. (See June 30 and July 2 cases.)

June 30

Sun TV

At around 9 a.m., police dressed in riot gear surrounded the offices of Sun TV in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. The station, which is owned by relatives of former chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, had been repeatedly broadcasting video of the opposition politician’s recent arrest, which was part of a broad state government crackdown on his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party.

Police had arrested Karunanidhi, the main rival to Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayaram Jayalalitha, and several DMK activists in pre-dawn raids on June 30.

Sun TV staff did not allow the police to enter, and they made no attempt to enter by force. However, police did prevent Sun TV reporters from entering the premises. One Sun TV editor described the incident as a “siege.”

That same day, Police Commissioner K. Muthukaruppan issued an order preventing Sun TV from broadcasting video of Karunanidhi’s arrest. “If the Sun TV continued the telecast, action would be taken against it in accordance with the law,” the order read, according to the Times of India newspaper.

Sun TV responded with a letter stating that the police commissioner did not have the authority to censor programming and continued with its regular broadcasts.

On July 3, CPJ issued a statement condemning a series of attacks against the press in Tamil Nadu, including the state government’s attempts to censor Sun TV. No further action was taken against the station. (See June 27, June 30, and July 2 cases.)

V. Ganesan, The Hindu
Sam Daniel, New Delhi Television
R. Chandran, New Delhi Television
N. Swaminathan, Sun TV
K. Jayakoti, Raj TV

Five Indian journalists were attacked by police while covering the arrest of M.K. Stalin, mayor of Chennai and son of opposition leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi.

The journalists were: Ganesan, a photographer for The Hindu newspaper; Daniel, a reporter for New Delhi Television (NDTV); Chandran, a cameraman for NDTV; Swaminathan, a reporter for Sun TV; and Jayakoti, a cameraman for Raj TV.

Opposition supporters had gathered outside Madurai Central Jail to protest Stalin’s arrest, and police began beating the demonstrators. Journalists covering the violence were also targeted.

On July 3, CPJ issued a statement condemning attacks against the press that accompanied the political crackdown in Tamil Nadu. (See June 27, June 30, and July 2 cases.)

July 2

R. Sendhil Kumar, Jaya TV
S. Kumar, Jaya TV

R. Sendhil Kumar, a cameraman for Jaya TV, and S. Kumar, his assistant, were assaulted in the Tamil Nadu state capital, Chennai, by activists from the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) party.

Jaya TV is owned and operated by allies of Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayaram Jayalalitha. The two Jaya TV journalists were singled out of a group of journalists in front of the home of DMK leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi.

The incident followed a spate of attacks against the press in Tamil Nadu that accompanied a political crackdown orchestrated by Jayalalitha. (See June 27 and June 30 cases.)

July 30

Moolchand Yadav, free-lancer

Yadav, a free-lance reporter who regularly contributed to Hindi-language dailies, including Jansatta and Punjab Kesari, was shot dead on the street in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. Colleagues said that Yadav had been murdered at the behest of two powerful landowners angered by his exposés about local corruption.

August 11

Tahir Mohiudin, Chattan

A group of soldiers stormed into the office of the Urdu-language weekly Chattan, one of Kashmir’s most well-respected and widely circulated publications. The soldiers beat up several staffers, including Mohiudin, the weekly’s owner and editor.

The attack on the paper came after unknown assailants threw a grenade at soldiers patrolling a busy street in the commercial district of Srinagar, Kashmir. Security forces retaliated by beating up civilians in the area, near Chattan‘s office. Four members of India’s Border Security Forces and five civilians were injured in the blast.

August 20

Rajesh Bhattarai, Aajo Bholi

At around 1 p.m., 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, which states that anyone whose words, “whether spoken or written,” promote “disharmony” or “feelings of enmity” between different communities faces up to three years in prison.

Sources at the Nepali-language daily told CPJ that the charge related to an article that had appeared in the paper more than a year ago. On May 3, 2000, Aajo Bholi reported that Sikkim’s chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, had described the flag of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) as a symbol of murder during a May Day speech two days earlier.

Chamling denied ever making this statement. Sources at Aajo Bholi told CPJ that in response to complaints from Chamling and other political leaders in Sikkim, they published three separate apologies for the article.

During the 1980s, the GNLF led an armed movement to create 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, 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.

Although Bhattarai was granted interim bail on medical grounds, he was required to appear by August 31 before a judge in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, to face a criminal charge.

On August 29, CPJ sent a letter to Chief Minister Chamling, calling on Sikkimese authorities to cease their unjust persecution of Rajesh Bhattarai. Bhattarai later arranged a private meeting with Chamling in New Delhi and apologized again for publishing the article, after which the government dropped the charge against him.

December 13

Vikram Singh Bisht, Asian News International

Bisht, a cameraman for the New Delhi-based news agency Asian News International (ANI), was critically injured in an attack by a suicide squad on the Indian Parliament. Thirteen people were killed in the raid, including the five attackers.

The assailants, armed with AK-47s, grenades, and other explosive devices, drove into the heavily guarded Parliament compound in what looked like an official car. Shortly thereafter, a gun battle broke out between the attackers and Indian security forces.

Bisht was standing by one of the main compound gates along with several other cameramen, waiting to film arriving and departing politicians. Early in the attack, one of the gunmen turned and fired in the direction of the journalists, according to a cameraman who was there.

Bisht, 28, was hit by a bullet that became embedded in his spinal cord, resulting in partial paralysis. Doctors said that an operation to remove the bullet would be too risky and suggested that with further treatment and physical therapy, Bisht may recover some movement.

At the end of 2001, Bisht was still hospitalized at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where he remained largely immobile. “I have been here for nearly a month,” Bisht told The Asian Age newspaper in January. “For days I could not move my hands. Now my left hand has shown some life. But my legs seem to have no life.”