In response to the persecution of journalists, a new law has been drafted to protect them against the police and vigilante groups
GEETA SESHU explains the rationale behind the draft bill

Pix: Chhattisgarh Journalists at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi on 10 May, 2016


“In Bastar, it has become impossible for journalists to do their work. They are being hounded and simply cannot function. Chhattisgarh journalists have been demanding a law to protect them, so we decided to look at their demand and examine whether a Commission would help protect them.”

These are the words of Chhattisgarh advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, explaining how a new draft law came into being. Last month, the draft Chhattisgarh Special Act for Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders was formulated at a citizen’s convention called by the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). It has sought feedback and suggestions and has already received a positive response from Chhattisgarh’s Leader of the Opposition, T. S. Singdeo. Bharadwaj said Singdeo will move it in the Chhattisgarh legislature as a private member’s bill shortly.

The past year has not been good for journalists in Chhattisgarh, four of whom (Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh, Deepak Jaiswal) were arrested between July 16, 2015 and March 2016. The first two are still in jail while the latter two were released in June 2016. In February this year, Malini Subramaniam of was hounded out of Chhattisgarh and forced to leave her home literally overnight.

It has also been a grim year for human rights defenders, especially those who either helped provide assistance to the arrested journalists or who took up cases of police atrocities against adivasis, which the local media reported on.  Lawyers Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group were also forced to leave their homes and office. In March, Soni Sori, civil society activist and political leader, suffered burns when attackers used an unidentifiable substance to blacken her face.

As part of the PUCL, Bharadwaj has been in the forefront of the struggle to provide legal aid for adivasis, workers, civil society activists and journalists, for several years now. In 2014, she was successful in getting an order from the Chhattisgarh High Court to institute a CBI investigation into the death of journalist Umesh Rajput, killed in 2010 for a report he had written for Hindi newspaper Nai Duniya on the death of an adivasi woman after an eye operation.

Speaking to The Hoot on the rationale behind the law, Bharadwaj said, “We live in special times. There is huge corporatization of the media and lots of journalists face malicious prosecution when they report on the corporates. In Chhattisgarh, they are also reporting in a highly militarized situation,” she said. If a free press is seen as a part of democracy, those who work in the media must be protected, she added.

In a nutshell, Bharadwaj explained, the draft Chhattisgarh Special Act for Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders seeks to set up a Commission with adequate representation for civil society to investigate any complaints of assault or attack on journalists and human rights defenders. Permission for the arrest of any journalist must be obtained from the Commission while a ‘rapid reaction’ time has been proposed to respond to any threat to a journalist or human rights defender.

Shalini Gera, an advocate who also worked on the draft with Bharadwaj, told The Hoot that this legislation will empower the Commission to sanction prosecution and will go beyond the recommendatory powers of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). A database of journalists will be created and the draft legislation ensures accountability of media houses towards any employees and stringers who might be killed, arrested or attacked.

Will a journalists’ protection law work?

For some years now, the demand for a law to protect journalists has been voiced by several quarters but the response has been divided. In 2011, in Maharashtra, a campaign from the Patrakar Halla Virodhi Samiti, a grouping of district journalists, got the then Congress-NCP government to appoint a committee headed by Chief Minister Narayan Rane.

A draft ordinance was formulated but this came to nought because leaders of several political parties opposed the move. In 2012, the National Union of Journalists (India) also campaigned for a law. Even the Press Council of India had recommended that a law be enacted making attacks on journalists a cognizable offence to be investigated by a special task force.

The idea then, was to provide protection for journalists along the lines of doctors serving in public hospitals. However, several journalists (this writer included) and journalists’ organisations, have expressed misgivings about such a law. For one, journalists and the media in India do not enjoy any special status in the Constitution and have the same rights and restrictions that all citizens have on towards freedom of expression.

The other issue is trickier: journalists do perform a public service by collecting and disseminating information but media houses may employ them as staffers or solicit their services as freelancer or stringers. Therefore, as the nature of the employment is private, it wouldn’t be possible to equate them with doctors employed in public hospitals.

Moreover, given that a majority of journalists are today on contract, operate independently as freelancers and may also have another source of income or business, the task of determining who exactly is a ‘journalist’ and in need of protection for her journalistic work, is not an easy one.

Nonetheless, it is clear that journalists are increasingly under attack today. In India, there have been 22 deaths of journalists since 2010, the number of journalists attacked on duty has been manifold, and cases have been lodged under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code, various state public security acts, defamation, contempt and even the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Media ethics, responsibilities and protection

To date, this draft law is the most serious and comprehensive attempt to deal with all of these tricky issues and still respond to the fears and hopes of beleaguered local journalists.  It also has space for examining media ethics and grievances against the media, as Bhardwaj explained.

Much work went into the draft and a team of lawyers worked with local journalists, lawyers, politicians, and civil rights activists to draw up its provisions. The team examined the only such legislation in the world – Mexico’s 2012 Mechanism to protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. While ‘journalists’ are foregrounded in the very nomenclature of the Chhattisgarh draft law, human rights lawyers have also been included.

A journalists, under this draft legislation, is defined as ‘any person who makes the exercise of freedom of expression and/or dissemination of information, his primary, substantive or significant activity; or any individual, whose job is to collect, store, generate, process, edit, comment, review, disseminate, publish or provide information through any media or any communication that can be printed, broadcast in a digital or image form, or an individual who has the experience or qualification to practice journalism’.

The Commission is tasked with ensuring ‘that the State Government effectively fulfills its responsibility to protect, respect and guarantee human rights of people who are at risk as a result of their exercise of freedom of expression and the professional pursuit of journalism in the state of Chhattisgarh and the defence and promotion of human rights; to direct the State Government to take effective action against public authorities and private players who violate the aforesaid rights; to prevent actions of public authorities and private players that violate the aforesaid rights; and to promote public policies, training and coordination of various state agencies in this regard.

The Commission’s powers include taking action against those who attack journalists; intervening in cases lodged against journalists; enquiring and investigating cases of assault or attacks; summoning state authorities for documents and evidence in cases lodged against journalists and to promote various initiatives, including training public servants, to ensure that freedom of expression is protected.

The draft legislation also mandates the state to provide funds for setting up such a Commission and to provide a mechanism for its functioning. Media houses are also mandated with providing information about the journalists working with them and registering them with a media database and accountability unit. The draft legislation ensures adequate representation from the state government, journalists’ bodies, retired judges of the Chhattisgarh High Court and civil society in the Commission.

Of course, both Bharadwaj and Gera are aware that much more debate and discussion is needed to fine-tune provisions of the draft legislation. Ultimately, as Bharadwaj says, a law like this can work only if all the agencies responsible for free speech work together to protect it.  But at least, she says, it gives the journalists of Chhattisgarh some hope in the extreme despair they are currently facing.

As it is, reporting from a conflict situation is fraught with difficulty as journalists can be under threat from both security forces and insurgency groups. But as events of the recent past has shown, both journalists and human rights defenders in Chhattisgarh, find themselves in a peculiar situation where they come under the scanner of law-enforcing agencies or are openly targeted by vigilante groups like the Samajik Ekta Manch that has close ties with the police.

The proposed Commission needs to act as a necessary buffer between the state agencies, the media and the human rights activists,  if it is to enable them to fulfill their watchdog role.