Reporters Without Borders called today on Indian President Abdul Kalam not to sign into law a measure recently passed by the Chhattisgarh state assembly in effect banning the media from reporting the activities of Maoists.
“The measure is a very dangerous step for press freedom in Chhattisgarh that seriously undermines democracy,” it said, noting that it violated article 19 of the national constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression.
The state government said the new law, which it adopted last September, was aimed at protecting life and property and keeping the peace.
Chhattisgarh government adopts law that could put journalists in prison
Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern at the likely damage to press freedom of a ban on all Maoists groups adopted by the Chhattisgarh State government in central India under which journalists could be jailed for up to three years for covering their rebellion.
The state government adopted the special people’s security ordinance on 5 September 2005 that bans the Communist Party of India - Maoist (CPI-M), fighting a guerrilla war since 1980, and 32 other pro-Maoist groups. The full list has yet been published but it could include media.
The draft order now goes to the state governor, Sushil Kumar Shinde, then to the President of the Indian Union, for ratification. It comes a few days after a landmine blast in which 23 Indian police officers died.
At a joint press conference on 5 September by the home minister and the state police chief to present the new ordinance, journalists were warned by officials that they faced arrest for interviewing Maoists and that media seen to be supporting the Maoists could be shut down and their property confiscated.
“You can’t fight an armed rebellion by stopping journalists from talking about it,” said the worldwide press freedom organisation. “The Chhattisgarh government commits a serious violation of press freedom by imposing a news blackout on the Maoist movement. If the ordinance is adopted in the state it will block all independent news coverage in the regions affected by the Maoist rebellion,” it said.
“We urge the Chhattisgarh governor and the president of the Indian Union not to approve this ruling out of respect for the Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression”.
A MP with the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) created uproar on 1st September after a local newspaper reported that he had said in the presence of journalists that “journalists who glorify Maoists should be killed”. The nationalist politician added in the following days that the government should jail journalists who travel to areas controlled by the Maoists, also known as Naxalists.
Several journalists in the state capital Raipur told Reporters Without Borders that the draft law was a serious blow for free expression. “Journalists working in zones where the Maoists are active, come under huge pressure from the security forces,” said Ruchir Garg, who works for the national TV channel Sahara.
Regional daily editor Alok Putul of Deshbandhu reminded the organisation that in 2004 the home minister ordered police to use any means to prevent the spread of news about the Maoists.