When a group of rowdies stormed into the office of TV channel IBN-Lokmat armed with sticks and bats on a recent weekday, they weren’t in a hurry. After all, there was no need to rush their effort to lay a beating on Editor Nikhil Wagle and trash his office when it was clear they’d be back on the streets in days.
Although local cops managed to arrest a few culprits involved in attacking IBN-Lokmat’s Mumbai office, chances are that by this time they would have already come out from the lock-up as charges against them are bailable.
Of late, the family feud to control the Marathi vote bank and competitive militant politics in Maharashtra has often ignited these hoodlums, who have brazenly displayed muscle power in the name of either Shiv Sena or their splinter group, Maharastra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
Frustrated with the third crushing defeat in the just-concluded Assembly hustings, wounded tiger Bal Thackeray, chief of the Shiv Sena, is furious, deeply hurt and disillusioned and has started attacking everyone coming his way. After the shocking elections results, he even blamed his own core vote bank and wrote in his mouthpiece, ‘Saamna’: “It is not outsiders, but Maharashtrians themselves who have stabbed me in the back.”
It’s not that media has been attacked for the first time, but IBN-Lokmat just happened to be the latest victim of this problem, because, as Nikhil Wagle Editor of the channel, said, “It could be the series of programmes the channel ran that were critical of Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s remarks about cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.” If the Shiv Sena was aggrieved with the coverage of the channel, they had the right to send a rejoinder and protest in a peaceful manner, but certainly not in the way they chose to protest. What is appalling is that one of the Shiv Sena leaders and editor of their party mouthpiece even defended the actions of these hooligans. Being an editor and supporting the attack on one’s media colleagues can only be deplored in very clear unambiguous words. The same mouthpiece keeps on spewing venom against everybody who doesn’t support Shiv Sena and its subversive ideology. They have often ridiculed and lambasted national leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. If they were angry about the critical portrayal of their esteemed leader, then have they ever thought of the people who are often at the receiving end of their tirade?
The valour of Shiv Sainiks in attacking the media has been always been lauded by Bal Thackeray and that has encouraged them to attack media on numerous occasions. Today, it is Nikhil Wagle, earlier it was Kumar Ketkar, the Loksatta Editor and senior journalist. He attracted the ire of Shiv Sangram activists in Mumbai for criticising the Congress-NCP led Government on the issue of installing a statue of Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji in the Arabian Sea.
There can’t be any doubt that the Indian media is one of the freest in the world and these attacks will sullen the free image and undermine the functioning of India’s vibrant free media and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. And there is no denying that the Indian state has always stood for ensuring this freedom, but what is alarming is the emergence of non-state actors who contest their legitimacy by force of arms and acts under overt and covert political patronage, and even though few people are arrested, their ring leaders who instigate these incidents of vandalism remain out of clutches of the law.
In this case, as it has emerged from police investigations, Sunil Raut, brother of Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, is the ring leader, and he has not been arrested yet. Sunil Raut had lost the State Assembly elections from the suburban Bhandup Assembly segment and is known as a troublemaker.
How can the local police fail to arrest him? There is no doubt that one day he will surrender and his powerful leader and MP brother will get him off the hook. The cops should arrest him immediately for masterminding such a dastardly act. If the cops don’t act fast then Shiv Sena will continue to attack media and terrorise Mumbai without any fear of the law enforcement agencies.
One sad and rather disappointing matter was the absence of solidarity among media groups. Today, it may have happened to IBN-Lokmat, but it could be the turn of other news organisations in the future. However, sadly the number of people who turned up at the protest venue was not very encouraging. There was a need to send out a strong signal by turning up and protesting the attack.
The Shiv Sena goons are not the only ones who vent their anger on the media. Politicians of all hues take turns to do it. Only a few weeks back, a section of advocates assaulted newspersons in the hallowed precincts of a courtroom in the Karnataka High Court.
Earlier this year, two journalists working for Manorama News were attacked by CPM hoodlums at an election rally. The journalists were beaten up by members of the CPM for some news that their channel had not even broadcast.
Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party may have denounced the latest attack by the Shiv Sena on media, but it was during his tenure that a ‘Halla Bol’ agitation against the media was unleashed targeting newspaper offices. It’s a different matter that he had to withdraw the agitation later under peer pressure, but the damage was already done. His detractor and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and the media have always been less than cordial and she has instigated her supporters who have carried out attacks on media organisations on several occasions.
In the latest report titled ‘Under Fire: Press Freedom in South Asia 2008-9’, the International Federation of Journalists finds that extremely serious attacks on journalists, their organisations and media institutions have increased across the region and that the attack on media has remained unabated.
It would be a travesty if those responsible for the attack on the media are not punished severely this time. They have always gone scot-free and returned with more vengeance. The suggestion of President of the Editor’s Guild of India for an ordinance against attacks on journalists and treating such crimes as a non-bailable offence is valid and such law will deter such attacks in future. Also, a law needs to passed in Parliament so that it remains applicable all over the country. The ordinance should have provision for harsh punishment for the accused, and please, there should be no Congress-BJP spat on this, rather camaraderie is needed to pass this law urgently.
(Sanjay Jha is associated with Global News, London. He is the co-winner of the prestigious Gerald Loeb Award for journalism in 2008. He regularly appears on foreign and Indian news outlet as a commentator. The views expressed here are of the author’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)