PUCL Bulletin July 1982,

July 1982
Repression and control of the press

A society whose press is filled only with good news invariably has its jails filled with good people. The Emergency period, when the heavy hand of censorship suddenly struck, only confirmed this. Trends in the past thirty months suggest that misgivings of the press being in danger of receiving a similar treatment again may not be wholly baseless. Of course, the methods may be different -instead of direct censorship, the Government may try to regulate the press indirectly.

These methods may not be entirely novel-many of them having been used in the past-for instance, by regulating the advertisements that the Governmental agencies offer to newspapers; by what was recently suggested under the cover of delinking the press from industrial houses; by an important Government functionary making a statement or two against a particular newspaper thereby indirectly sounding; its patrons and advertisers to keep off; raising the price of newsprint directly or by means of raising indirect taxes such as excise and/or custom duty; setting rules that empower the Government with discretionary power obviously to patronise the sycophants and victimise the dissenters; and so on. And in case none of these work then directly intimidate the Press-not by a government order, but by using the muscle power of the party machinery and occasionally justifying the violence as a people's reaction. In many instances the freedom of the press is restricted by limiting access to information by curbing contact of journalists with Government functionaries, by ordinances and at times by legislative acts.

The past thirty months have witnessed threats to press freedom by most of these methods. Even before the present Government assumed power at the Centre, the December 25, 1980 issue of 'Dainik Assam' and two other newspapers left some news columns and their editorial spaces blank. This more than exposed the fact that the censor was at work in Assam. These dailies did not print a word on the December 24 Assam bandh. The bandh reports from their correspondents had to be submitted to the authorities for "scrutiny" under Assam Special Powers (Press) Act enforced by the Government on December 23, 1980. The officials reportedly also directed the press to print only the Government version which many papers refused to do. According to Blitz, the Bombay based weekly, news dispatches from its correspondents were singled out for pre-censorship while many editors in Manipur were arrested for discharging their normal duties.

The Press Council of India corroborated the Blitz report. Later the Hindu of Madras dated July 13, 1981 reported that pre censorship in Manipur still existed. The local press had been restrained from publishing reports on the activities of 'insurgents'. A number of local dailies were blacklisted for defying official directives and for "putting the establishment in an embarrassing position". What is worth noting in the case of censorship in Assam is that the notification invoking the Assam Special Powers (Press) Act says nothing overtly about censorship. The undefined Special Powers are invoked to "maintain law and order and preservation of peace and communal harmony among the people". As a consequence of invoking this special Act many journals in the State could not be regularly published "due to circumstances beyond our (newspaper's) control". In order to avoid this intermittent publication, most editors were soon found to be observing editorial self-restraint.

In another case of official gagging of the press, the Tamilnadu Government made an amendment to the Indian Penal Code, section 292-A by an executive order, making publication of "grossly indecent or garrulous writing" severely punishable. The ordinance issued on September 21, 1981 also amended the Criminal Procedure Code making an offence under Section 292-A of IPC a cognisable and non-bailable offence. This was followed by a Government order expressely for bidding Government servants from furnishing any information to the press.

The Tamilnadu Government later invoked this ordinance against the editor and the director, printer and publisher of the Tamil daily Ethiroli following investigation by an assistant commissioner of police (Crime Branch). The complainant against the paper was H. V. Hande, the Tamilnadu Health Minister who found certain news items in the October 15, 1981 issue of Ethiroli of 'garrulous' nature. The ordinance has since been withdrawn due to public pressure.

Often, the press is muffled by using the local Government administration. Early this year on January 25, C. B. Kaul, a correspondent of the Indian Express was detained for 24 hours under section 153-A of Ranbir Singh Penal Code of Jammu and Kashmir. The reason offered by the State obviously revealed little about the real intent of the Government which officially charged him for promoting hatred and enmity between Harijans and Rajputs in his report published over eighteen months ago on June 20,1980. The fact remains that his reporting was a little too uncomfortable for the State administration.

Harassment, at times even torture, of moffussil journalists is not uncommon either. Scanning the various newspaper reports reveal that ill-treatment of uncompromising journalists by the local administration continues all over the country. To quote only two of the many such instances-on March 23, 1981 three journalists-two reporters and a photographer were beaten up by the police at Hussainiwalah while covering a police lathi charge on the volunteers of Khetibari Union. What is worse, a police official-in this case we have the name _ Darshan Singh, a Deputy Superintendent of police, admitted rather candidly that "it was the only way to discipline newsmen". In another case, a general secretary of the district union of journalists in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh was intimidated and harassed by the local administration. He had exposed the rampant corruption in the Etah Municipal Board. He was arrested later under section 108 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr. P. C) for violation of Section 144. Curiously enough, prohibitory orders under section 144 were imposed only after the journalist had already been arrested.

Another recent case of executive assault on the freedom of the press was witnessed in the Dhanbad Coal belt - - where the Editor/Publisher of a local daily was arrested and tortured by the police. Of course, in Mafia ruled regions like Dhanbad where the administration-mafia nexus is a dangerously close one, a journalist has no protection from either of them. Exposure of the mafia often invites the wrath of the administration, and the administration also tackles its critics by using the mafia power.

These are however only some of the incidents randomly chosen out of the scantly reported, yet by no means insignificant number of such events. There is also a considerable erosion of press freedom when Central and State Governments lure journalists by offering various benefits. In a scarcity ridden society where even acquiring the basic needs is a formidable job, the temptation of government accommodation and other consumer facilities and goods on a priority basis is difficult to resist. But while the government offers these facilities to news people as a matter of routine, experience shows how these become, if need be, instruments of control.

Another aspect is the capacity of the government to affect the economics of newspapers and other periodicals. Over the years, most newspapers have come to depend on advertisement has been growing steadily. So much so, that in the case of medium sized newspapers, nearly four-fifths of the total advertisement is from the government. State governments particularly, use this weapon for both patronage and victimisation. An illustrative case was the sudden transfer of the director of DAVP (Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity) for not complying with the instruction of his political superiors to issue advertisements worth a considerable amount to a small newspaper. There is then the recent case of Indian Nation and Aryavarta, English and Hindi dailies respectively, published from Patna. Both these newspapers-which are published by the same group-were initially denied payment for advertisements given to and already carried by them. This was followed by cutting down and eventually stopping government advertisements. There can be no doubt that this action was taken as these dailies were becoming a little too uncomfortable for the government due to their critical reporting of the Chief Minister's activities.

Yet another weapon in the governments arsenal is to tamper with the duties (customs, excise, etc). or even raise the price of newsprint. The proposal of the former central finance minister R. Venkataraman to levy an additional 15 percent duty on imported newsprint was one such financial blow. Though this duty was later rationalised, there is now a move to raise the price of newsprint. This is not all. The government has decided to canalise newsprint import through the State Trading Corporation thus creating an intermediary between the source of import and the newspapers. Since the STC is a practitioner of monopoly pricing in canalised items, the final price of newsprint is very much higher. What is also significant is that while newspapers cannot import newsprint on their own, import licenses can be issued to other parties who in turn could sell it to the newspapers. This policy, ostensibly visualised to "free" the "small papers from the clutches of the monopoly press", thus affects the extensive coverage of news and the commercial viability of the newspapers.

Among the other steps that impinge on freedom are: the nationalisation of newspapers having a circulation above a certain number, say, one lakh; restrictions on publishing a paper from more a specified number of states; creating difficulties for a newspaper to acquire bank credits, etc.

The constant insecurity felt by those in power was also reflected in a private bill presented in the Rajya Sabha in 1978 by a member of the ruling party advocating a policy of "planned freedom". The proposed bill, which figured again in the last session of Parliament, advocated the taking over of the 'big press' and establishing a State press and a legislatively granted opposition-party press. In ensuring discussions the Rajya Sabha member could not convincingly explain his notion of planned freedom beyond saying that the right to propagate news and analysis should be confined only to political parties recognised as the national parties. Fortunately so far, the present government, which would welcome the idea of nationalising the press, is wary of guaranteeing a State supported organ for the opposition. This has apparently withheld the adoption of the Bill.

But the burnt of intimidation and violence is directly felt by journalists and periodicals in the mofussil areas. Vested interests with the tacit and at times direct support of politicians have used mob fury to quash any "criticism and exposure". One of the most brutal incidents in this series was the rape and murder of Chhabirani Mahapatra and the torture and harassment of her husband, Naba Krishna Mahapatra in Orissa. According to the police investigation itself, criminals were hired to "teach a lesson" to Mahapatra had incurred the wrath of local businessmen and other politically influential people by exposing their corrupt practices. The collusion of the police with the culprits was more than clear in this case. Evidence showed that the police had been involved not only in efforts to hush up the matter when the culprits were exposed, but also in the subsequent kidnapping, torture and harassment of the journalist. Moreover, even after the incident became public and the police investigations themselves confirmed the events, the police filed a charge sheet not on the grounds of rape, murder and torture but of "wrongful confinement…causing simple injury.... Out raging the modesty of a woman' and the like.

Around the same time, Youth Congress (I) members seiged the offices of three major newspapers in Bangalore. Neither the staff nor the published newspapers were allowed to come out of the office premises for the entire night. Even appeals to the highest officers of the state and later to the cabinet ministers of the Karnataka government had little effect. Even though a large contingent of police was present at the scene of the incident , they were apparently there only to ensure that the blockade was carried out peacefully. In any case the squatters were guilty of wrongful confinement of nearly 150 people and therefore liable to arrest. The tone of the government's approach had already been set in the evening when Gundu Rao, the Karnataka Chief Minister, castigated and threatened journalists for what he called "false reporting". The Youth Congress (I) action against the press came barely an hour after Gundu Rao's tirade.

Threats and violence to press freedom arise also from a third source - the intolerance of other newspaper offices in Cuttack by medical students and another of assaulting the editor and some members of the staff of a newspaper in Varanasi point towards this dangerous trend. In Orissa, the offices of Prajtantra and Matrubhumi in Cuttack were ransacked by the students of the local medical college for not publishing a contradiction to a report alleging molestation of a woman student of the medical college. In Varanasi, the gang of toughs that beat up the editor and other staff members of Janavarta, were protesting against the publication of a report about a Swami who had allegedly been caught red-handed by railway workers in an unsavory escapade. The Janvarta report had also attributed some remarks against some local Swamis including Swami Karpatri and Bhagwan Awadhoot Ram.

The murder of eighty-two-year-old Lala Jagat Narain, the founder-editor of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers on September 9, 1981 marks another high point of this trend.

These then are some of the incidents and trends of repression and control of the Press. The pace of these various trends show no sign of abating. The frequency and range of these incidents erode the very base of democratic society. The time calls for an all round vigil.


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