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Is Orissa turning unsafe for journalists?

By Jatindra Dash, IANS,

Bhubaneswar : They say you can crush a man with journalism. But if the growing number of attacks on journalists in Orissa is any indication, then the fourth estate of democracy is itself in serious danger in the state.

Cases of reporters and photo-journalists being beaten up by mobs, protesters and sometimes by the establishment itself abound in newspapers. News providers, in a strange role reversal of sorts, are becoming the news makers.

“In the last five years, the attacks have become more frequent, more widespread and more vicious,” Prasant Patnaik, a senior member of Media Unity for Freedom of Press (MUFP) – a forum fighting for the cause of journalists, told IANS.

“Around half a dozen journalists in Orissa are charged with ‘sedition’ and ‘waging war against the state’ and much worse,” he added.

At least five photo-journalists were injured while one of them fractured his leg Monday when hundreds of people attacked them here. The incident occurred when the scribes were taking photos of protesters blocking a prominent road here and causing a traffic jam.

Similarly, on March 15, five reporters of a local TV channel were injured after an unruly gang of students attacked them at the premises of an engineering college at Paralakhemundi town in Ganjam district, 340 km from here.

The students also broke the cameras of the reporters when they tried to shoot the vandalism during a protest against the institute’s management.

On Feb 28, a reporter and a cameraman of a local channel were allegedly chased and beaten up by activists of the state’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) while they were covering a black flag demonstration organised by opposition workers at a function in Cuttack district.

What is the most shocking part is that the incident occurred in the presence of state Agriculture Minister Damodar Rout. The assailants thrashed the journalists and tried to snatch the shot footage.

The culprits named in the police complaint were perfunctorily arrested and immediately let off on bail, making a mockery of the case.

On the same day, another reporter-cameraman pair was beaten up by a group of people in Paradip while they were covering a protest by people displaced due to an industrial project.

Gopal Chandra Nanda, a former director general of state police, attributes the attacks to a more robust media.

“The number of media organisations has increased in our state and so have media activities. Now the media is giving attention to issues like corruption and anti-social activities. These were not getting adequate coverage earlier. Obviously those who get affected by this will react,” he said.

MUFP published a white paper earlier this month, detailing over 30 incidents of attacks on scribes in the state during the past five years.

It also recorded cases cooked up against journalists by or through police.

One of the cases it cited was about a woman journalist who was molested by uniformed men during a religious festival at state capital Bhubaneswar.

In most cases, the offenders have gone scot-free because of their connections with the ruling establishment, the white paper said.

It also carries various photographic evidences about the involvement of influential people in such attacks.

“It is a systematic attempt to identify and punish all journalists or groups of media men, who may have an opinion that may not be to the liking of the ruling politicians, bureaucrats and industries,” the paper said.

Eminent social activist Ranjan Panda says the main reason behind the spurt in such attacks is the rapid industrialisation the state authorities have initiated.

“Any pillar of democracy which is critical of the move is fast becoming a victim because the vested official-politician-corporate groups do not want independent voices,” he said.

Though a senior state home department official claims the government has acted on all the complaints and ordered police to book the culprits, the MUFP members beg to differ.

(Jatindra Dash can be contacted at [email protected])