During a recent protest in Srinagar police and CRPF personnel repeatedly beat up four photojournalists and damaged their equipment. Yet again, complaints were made with the authorities but instead of taking action against the involved personnel, authorities blamed the journalists. Press Council of India shot off a letter of protest to the chief minister, who responded in a manner that leaves journalists vulnerable.
Mr Omar Abdullah,
Chief Minister of J & K
Through Mr Asgar Khan PS to Chief Minister
Dear Mr Abdullah,
I sent you an [e]mail recently about the assault on some Kashmiri journalists in Srinagar, and asked you for your comments and the action you took in this connection.
As yet I have not received any reply.
In the meantime I have received a report from the South Asia Chief of Bureau of the Associated Press, Mr Ravi Nessman in which he mentioned that according to the police there was an unruly mob of about 300 to 400 youth armed with lathis and stones who were told to disperse, but instead of doing so they hurled stones on the police party, which resulted in the lathi charge. According to this police report, the journalists could not be differentiated from the rest of the mob.
I do not agree with the police version. I am informed that the journalists had video cameras and other equipments, which clearly distinguished them from the rest of the crowd. At any event, it is obvious that when a journalist is being attacked he is bound to tell the police that he is a journalist.
I am writing a letter to the Union Cabinet Secretary and Union Home Secretary, and all the Chief Ministers and Chief Secretaries/Home Secretaries of all the States in India, and all the Chief Secretaries of Union Territories that I am not going to accept violence on journalists by the police or para military forces. It is the duty of the Press Council under section 13 of the Press Council Act to uphold the freedom of the press. A journalist while covering an incident is only doing his job. He is like a lawyer who defends his client. Just as a lawyer cannot be equated with his client, so also a journalist cannot be equated with the crowd. A lawyer may defend a murderer, but that does not make him a murderer. Similarly, a journalist is only doing his duty of conveying information to the public, and he enjoys the fundamental right of freedom of the media guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
The paramilitary forces and police in all States/Union Territories must therefore be instructed not to commit any violence on media persons, otherwise they will face criminal proceedings which the Press Council will launch against them.
Chairman, Press Council of India
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s Response
I am in receipt of your letter, sent yesterday, regarding the recent incident involving members of the media & the J&K police.
I understand the sentiment behind your letter but feel it necessary to place on record that the police have never had an intention of targeting media personnel. Journalists & camera men regularly cover public protests & it is a very rare occurrence that media people get caught up in the same way as this recent incident.
While it is regrettable that this incident took place I believe there are important lessons that can be learnt. It is easy for us, sitting far away from the scene of the action, to suggest that the police should look for cameras to ascertain whether a person is a press person or not but in the heat of the moment with stones & tear smoke shells flying it is often impossible for the police to take the time to make a proper assessment. In the chaos I dare say a bag of stones & a camera bag would probably look quite similar. Even with the best of intentions mistakes will happen & we have to take steps to reduce the possibility of such mistakes.
In order to avoid such situations arising again its not good enough to just write to states & put the onus on them. I believe that the responsibility rests on the states, the media but above all on the Press Council of India. Unlike a lot of other countries, including countries like the UK which protect the freedom of the press, there is a code of conduct for the media while covering such situations. We have no such code binding on journalists in this country.
Perhaps the time has come for the PCI to frame such a code in consultation with states & the media fraternity. As a starting point may I suggest that journalists who wish to plunge in to crowds to get the perfect photograph should wear brightly coloured jackets/bibs so that they can be identified easily by the law enforcing agencies. Unless you take the initiative to make it easier to identify journalists/camera persons in such situations I’m afraid we will always run the risk of such mistakes happening again.
I look forward to working with you as you take the initiative to frame a suitable code of conduct. I assure you on behalf of the forces operating in J&K that we will follow such a code in letter & spirit.
Dear Justice Katju,
As a continuation to my earlier email to you I’d like to add some further details. Last year we had a similar incident with a photographer caught in a police lathi charge. The photographers went on a flash strike & the rest of the media fraternity joined them. The DG of J&K police mandated his officers to talk to them to resolve the issue. The journalists were represented by Altaf Hussain, previously with BBC, and one of the suggestions made by the police was that the association should design a suitable jacket/bib in a bright colour with PRESS prominently displayed on this. The police would procure these jackets at its own cost & these could be distributed as per a list provided by the association. The cost of these jackets was to be borne by the police and NOT passed on to the journalists. This was agreed to by the association and they called off their strike. Since then neither the design not any other details were furnished to the police & the suggestion remained on paper.
I hope as part of your desire to see such unfortunate incidents avoided in future you will consider this suggestion as part of a possible code of conduct. I would be happy to have my senior police officers share the details with you.
I look forward to meeting you, hopefully over a meal, to discuss this and other related issues at your convenience.