Press freedom crisis in India's Chhattisgarh state deepens as two journalists flee Bastar

February 29, 2016 6:15 PM ET

New York, February 29, 2016--The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the deteriorating climate for the press in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh and calls on authorities to ensure that journalists can work there without fear of intimidation. In recent weeks, two journalists have fled the district of Bastar out of concern for their safety, and lawyers defending imprisoned journalists have been evicted from their offices.

Alok Prakash Putul, a journalist for the BBC's Hindi Service, fled the district of Bastar on February 20, after residents warned him about his safety, according to his account published on the website of the BBC Hindi service and other news reports. Two days earlier, Bastar-based freelance journalist Malini Subramaniam, who had often reported on human rights abuses and the conflict between Maoist groups and the state in Chhattisgarh, left the state following harassment by the police and members of the anti-Maoist group Samajik Ekta Manch, according to English-language news website Scroll.in.

"Recent threats and harassment of journalists covering Chhattisgarh, and those defending them, risk producing an information vacuum in an area where the press is already under tremendous pressure," said CPJ's Asia program senior research associate, Sumit Galhotra. "Authorities have a responsibility to protect journalists and ensure they can do their work without fear of reprisal."

Subramaniam, the freelance journalist, told CPJ that police officials had come to her home several times to interrogate her about her reporting. Members of the Samajik Ekta Manch had also protested outside her house, shouting slogans including, "Death to Malini Subramaniam." Unknown assailants subsequently pelted her residence with rocks, and police interrogated one of her domestic staff for several hours twice in the same day, according to news reports. Police on February 17 summoned her landlord, who then gave her an eviction notice, Scroll.in reported. Subramaniam and her daughter had lived in the area for nearly five years, according to Scroll.in.

On February 20, Putul, the BBC Hindi Service reporter, was reporting on alleged police violence in Bastar when a villager told him unspecified parties were searching for him, and that "anything could happen," he wrote on the BBC Hindi website. He left the same day. Putul wrote that he had received similar warnings from other residents.

Putul had reported on pressures faced by the lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. According to news reports citing the lawyers, Chhattisgarh police pressured the group's landlord to evict them. The lawyers were representing imprisoned journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav, whom Chhattisgarh police arrested in 2015 on unsubstantiated allegations that they were aligned with Maoists. Both Nag and Yadav remain behind bars.

Chhattisgarh police admit they spoke to Subramaniam and the legal aid group's landlords, but deny any role in the evictions, according to news reports.

Rights lawyer Isha Khandelwal, who was representing Nag and Yadav, had also recently begun representing Subramaniam amid calls for her arrest, according to news reports. Police have vilified the legal aid group as Maoists supporters, according to The New York Times, and have repeatedly harassed them in the past 18 months, according to the news website TheWire.in.

Reporting from Chhattisgarh poses serious challenges: According to CPJ research, police often pressure, harass, or abuse journalists in an effort to silence critical reporting or to compel them to serve as informants. Meanwhile Maoists have attacked journalists they accuse of being informants for police, CPJ has found.

CPJ has not received any response to a letter to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh sent on January 19, asking him to ensure a safer working environment for journalists in the state.

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