Under Hindu right, attacks on press rise in Karnataka

Confusion surrounds the case of imprisoned Indian journalist Naveen Soorinje, who was jailed for exposing an attack on young men and women last summer by extremists belonging to the Hindu Jagran Vedike, self-appointed moral police in coastal Karnataka. Soorinje’s report helped lead to the arrest of dozens of attackers. But Karnataka state–ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)–has grouped him with the very attackers he exposed. Soorinje’s continued imprisonment warrants a look at the larger picture in coastal Karnataka.

A September 2012 fact-finding report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka found that the moral policing attack that Soorinje exposed was not an isolated event. Since the BJP took power in the state in 2008, attacks on the press have also increased.

In 2008, CPJ reported escalated violence against the local media. The Kannada-language daily Karavali Ale, which has a record of reporting on Hindu nationalist groups, said its editions were confiscated from vendors and torched. Its printing press was also attacked in November of that year, according to local news reports. The reports quoted B.V. Seetaram, editor-in-chief of the media group Chitra Publications which owns the newspaper, saying local Hindu nationalist groups with the support of the state’s BJP government were targeting the paper in retaliation for articles criticizing their activities.

More recently, CPJ reported that an employee of Karavali Ale was attacked this month. Its newspapers were once again confiscated and torched, and vendors distributing the newspaper were threatened.

And last week, activists belonging to Hindu nationalist groups threatened local residents who were produced in court to help secure bail for journalist K.K. Shahina, according to her husband, journalist Rajeev Ramachandran, news reports said. Shahina’s 2010 report criticized a police investigation and arrest of a suspect in relation to a 2008 bomb attack in the state.

Journalists like Soorinje have been instrumental in exposing the activities of the Hindu nationalists, journalist Sudipto Mondal of The Hindu told CPJ. “The local law enforcement has been completely complicit with the Hindu right,” Mondal told CPJ by phone. Soorinje’s testimony reveals that on the night of the attack that he reported, then-Commissioner of Mangalore Police Seemant Kumar Singh threatened the journalist, saying “I will teach him a lesson. He has said that there is Taliban culture in Mangalore…This time I will not leave him. We will fix him. He may have any number of influential friends. But I will definitely fix him.” Ironically, Singh has since been transferred to work in the civil rights enforcement wing in Bangalore.

Despite last month’s decision by the state cabinet to drop charges against Soorinje, the 28-year-old journalist languishes in prison. The state’s chief minister, Jagadish Shettar, has yet to sign the resolution that would help secure Soorinje’s release. Meanwhile, on Monday a senior minister cited “pressure” from a Hindu nationalist group which is calling on the state to drop charges against others implicated in the attack before Soorinje can be set free, according to The Hindu.  

Soorinje, although a Hindu, has opted to be held in the Muslim ward of the Mangalore jail, apparently in order to avoid those in the Hindu ward who he has exposed by his pen. In the meantime, Soorinje has not relinquished his pen. Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, a journalist for Frontline, recently visited Soorinje in prison. Sayeed told CPJ that Soorinje has lost weight since the last time he saw the jailed journalist, “but he remains upbeat” based on Sayeed’s 45-minute visit with the prisoner. “He remains a journalist even in jail where he is reporting on stories he is coming across.”