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Journalists tread a fine grey line in red corridor

The murder of Nemi Chand Jain in Sukma opens up questions on how local journalists survive in Maoist areas.

JAVED IQBAL  23rd Feb 2013

The journalist’s body was found on the road with his neck slit. Copyright photo

he murder of a local journalist in Sukma is indicative of the fine line local journalists have to walk to survive in the red corridor.

With the brutal execution of a journalist in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh on 12 February, we have now entered a downward spiral as far as the safety and integrity of journalists working in Maoist-affected areas is concerned. Nemi Chand Jain's body was found on the road, his neck slit, with a note claiming that he was an informant. He was 45 years old and wrote for the Hindi dailies Haribhoomi and Dainik Bhaskar and had over 20 years of experience in journalism, both as a distributor and as a journalist.

An initial note the police recovered from the site claimed that the Maoists have accused him of working as an informant for the police for the past three years, yet there have been questions regarding the authenticity of the note. It was signed by the "Kanker Ghati Darbha Division", which many observers claim does not exist. According to a report by Ashutosh Bharadwaj in the Indian Express, another note appeared a few days later where the Maoists denied responsibility, which was followed by another one that claims that he was indeed killed as he was an informant. The same report quotes the Superintendent of Police, Sukma, Abhishek Shandilya, who says, "Jain was very close to them. Why they would kill him is puzzling."

Other claims mention he was killed due to personal enmity with someone else in the area or that he was murdered by smugglers. Reports and local journalists have repeatedly indicated that Nemichand Jain had an argument with a group of villagers a few days before his murder.

In his blog, Kanker-based journalist Kamal Shukla has no doubts that the Maoists were responsible for his killing, indicating that there was a Jan Sabha held a few days ago where Jain was instrumental in freeing the individual the Maoists were trying.

Yet while the question of why he was killed and who killed him is yet to be answered, certain mainstream reports have already blamed the Maoists, without really trying to understand the relationship the local media have with both the state and the rebels.

In the red corridor, there has always been an underlying reality that every local journalist who lives in the area has to deal with the threats and violence of the police and the Naxalites, and sometimes has no option but to work as an informant. A local journalist had once even informed the police of my presence in the area once when I was on a reporting assignment. It's hard to blame him for it, for he has to live in the district within a delicate balance, and try to keep his relationship as cordial with the police as well as the Naxalites. The argument, therefore, that Nemi Chand Jain was killed for being an informant suggests then that the Naxalites should kill all the local journalists in Bastar.

Another grey area is that a journalist is an informant by default. One simply needs to enter into a police station and find that the police are reading Arundhati Roy's "Gandhians with guns". They now have photos of the young adivasi girl who liked to watch "ambush videos". Or they can visit one journalist's Facebook page and download a group photo with the rebels that he has as a profile picture. In 2009, when I asked how the police knew the man they gunned down was a Maoist, he showed me a photograph of a man I saw ten minutes ago on a gunny sack outside the police station, bullet holes in his chest, with dead brown eyes, now in a photograph posing with an AK47, looking straight into the camera. Alive, once upon a time.

Bastar is where the art of not writing was perfected, and where the morbid statistical out of context reports of every bus burning, ambush, and IED blast will find national airplay without any of the underlying questions of what the adivasis really want. There are local journalists whose editors have told them not to report on any Maoist-related issue. There are local journalists who cannot write anything negative about mining, as the companies provide them advertising revenue, which they have to acquire themselves, and at times is their sole source of income. There are local journalists who have been shot at by angry jawans, when they were doing their duty and trying to report on another ambush by the Maoists that left two CISF jawans dead. There have been local journalists who have been beaten up repeatedly by the Salwa Judum, and a few years ago, three prominent senior journalists were threatened with "a dog's death" if they continued to carry Maoist statements by a pro-state vigilante organization calling itself the Danteshwari Adivasi Swabhiman Manch. And yes, there are local journalists who misuse their privilege for profit, by blackmailing individuals with a promise to publish insidious lies in their newspapers if they don't pay up.

But whether there are journalists who're informants, blackmailers, truth-seekers, careerists, philosophers, Arnab Goswamis, Hem Chandra Pandeys, Lingaram Kodopis, stenographers, or downright liars, like the rest of the human race, they don't deserve to be executed.

Of course holding a press card does not give one the right to do whatever they please. A journalist cannot blackmail individuals, cannot be party with the Salwa Judum and burn villages down, cannot act as a courier for the Maoists, or go with them while they are about to ambush the police. The laws of the land apply to journalists as well, and abusing one's privilege has to be dealt with through the course of the law.

There are more grey areas concerning the neutrality of a journalist in what is also a class conflict. Most local journalists in Dantewada aren't adivasis, most are outsiders, and many are contractors. They are by default against the Maoists, but again, they aren't enemy combatants. But according to the Maoists, contractors have always been enemy combatants, if not their main source of income.

Then how does one work as a journalist in a state like Chhattisgarh when your sympathies are with the people? With the poorest, with the adivasis? Or how does one work as a journalist when your sympathies are with the ruling class? Is writing the truth enough? In Dantewada, it is the senseless loss of life of the police and of the adivasis, the tragedy of endless suffering, that shows there is sometimes no need to be neutral, but simply anti-war, anti-brutality, anti-failed economic policies, anti-structural violence. Journalism, the so-called fourth pillar of democracy, is not beyond the duties of the state towards its people enshrined in the constitution, but a journalist also has those duties towards the people.

And many local journalists are aware of that, if only their editors, the state and the Maoists allow them to.

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