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Commonwealth Journalists' Association

Tom Baird / © Commonwealth Secretariat

By Mahendra Ved, a senior journalist based in Delhi and chair of the CJA-India branch

Mr. Justice Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, has decided to send fact-finding teams to report on threats to the media in view of complaints from several states about attacks on journalists and covert measures to undermine press freedom.

“Freedom of speech and expression is a guaranteed right under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. Since I feel that this freedom is under threat in many states I intend to send fact-finding teams to some of the states from where we are getting a large number of such complaints. I have sought the opinion of the members of the Press Council in this connection,” Justice Katju said in a press statement on February 4, 2012.

The complaints from “several quarters in several states” indicated that “the freedom of the press is in various ways being imperiled,” The Hindu newspaper quoted him as saying.

Physical assaults on journalists and media houses by government agencies, persons or organisations and the withholding of government advertisements and other facilities when a newspaper is critical of the government are some of the ways in which press freedom is being threatened, he observed.

Justice Katju’s announcement came a week after an attack on The Times of India building in Mumbai. Journalists and heads of media associations have called for a law against such violence. A protest was organised at Azad Maidan, a stone’s throw away from the historic building that houses The Times of India. The establishment has been attacked many times in the past as well.

Established in 1838, the newspaper in the year 2008 reported that (with a circulation of over 3.14 million) it was certified by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (India) as the world’s largest selling English-language daily, ranking it as the eighth largest selling newspaper in any language in the world.

Media persons gathered under the aegis of the Patrakar Halla Virodhi Kruti Samiti (Committee Against Attacks on Journalists). They announced that an agitation would be held in New Delhi on May 1.

On January 28, workers of Shiv Sena, a political party that aggressively promotes chauvinism against ‘outsiders’  (people from outside Maharashtra state) ransacked the lobby of the ToI building to protest an article on Sena MP Anandrao Adsul. The article in the Marathi daily, Maharashtra Times, had speculated that Mr. Adsul was likely to join the Nationalist Congress Party.

“In the last 10 years, 36 media houses have been attacked and 90 per cent of them have been perpetrated by political parties and their supporters. No party is an exception to this. But we won’t be cowed down by such attacks. We are and will continue to report the truth fearlessly. On May 1, Chalo Dilli (let’s go to Delhi),” PHVKS convenor S.M. Deshmukh said.

All the media heads expressed frustration at the continuing inaction and apathy of the state government.

While Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has promised to push for a Bill to protect journalists, his appointment of State Industries Minister Narayan Rane to the law formulation panel is viewed with suspicion. Formerly with Shiv Sena, Mr. Rane was one of the ministers who opposed the Bill at the cabinet meetings, the journalists alleged.

“If the Chief Minister appointed Mr. Rane as the head, his intentions are suspect,” said Nikhil Wagle, Editor of IBN Lokmat, whom Shiv Sainiks have routinely targeted since 1991, the latest attack being in 2009.

He called for taking up the issue with the national leadership and with international journalists’ associations.

“There have been 212 cases of attacks on journalists and media houses in the last two-and-a-half years. Eleven journalists have been murdered in the last ten years.

The government will not wake up till Maharashtra finds a mention in a report of the New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The journalists in Maharashtra are not afraid to do their job without fear or favour,” Mr. Wagle said.

Protestors displayed placards and shouted slogans condemning the attack. “Sometimes, the truth is bitter; but don’t shoot the messenger,” said the Mumbai Press Club banner.