We’re targeted for exposing government mismanagement: Journalists on Bihar media crackdown

Arun Kumar, Dharmendra Mishra (top left and right), Ranjan Sinha, Umesh Pandey and Rajnikanth Thakur (bottom left to right), are journalists who have had cases filed against them for reporting stories during the last two years in Bihar. Since the beginning of the pandemic the Bihar government and the Bharatiya Janata Party have led a widespread crackdown on journalists who are critical of the government and those who documented how members of the ruling coalition broke the law. SOURCE PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY Arun Kumar, Dharmendra Mishra, Ranjan Sinha, Umesh Pandey and Rajnikanth Thakur
30 June, 2021

Since the beginning of the pandemic the Bihar government and the Bharatiya Janata Party have led a widespread crackdown on journalists who are critical of the government and those who documented how members of the ruling coalition broke the law, according to reporters in the state. At least ten journalists have faced cases under serious charges including criminal conspiracy and extortion. Journalists from the state told me that members of the BJP and the Bihar police have threatened them for their reporting as well. Journalists said that publications in the state have heavily censored reports by journalists that were critical of the ruling coalition. “In my 13-year-long career, I have never faced any such threats or FIRs, this is getting worse day by day,” Umesh Pandey, a reporter for the Hyderabad-based news channel ETV Bharat, told me.

On 14 May 2021, Pandey published a report that quoted Bihar government health officials. The report noted that Ashwini Choubey, the MP of Buxar from the BJP, was inaugurating five ambulance that he had already inaugurated, after changing their stickers. Choubey is currently the minister of state for health and family welfare. In March 2019, the hydroelectric power company SJVN had gifted the five ambulances to the Buxar district health committee as a part of their corporate-social responsibility efforts. SJVN is building a thermal power plant in the Chausa area of Buxar district, and local journalists told me the donation of ambulances helped improve the image of SJVN and the BJP ahead of the 2019 general elections.

Pandey told me that Choubey had inaugurated the ambulances in 2019, but they lay largely unused in Buxar’s Sadar hospital throughout the pandemic. Pandey’s report notes that Choubey and the Bihar government have taken multiple efforts to take the ambulances out of Buxar, but widespread pressure following media stories prevented this. The 14 May report which contained photos of the same ambulance with new stickers noted that Choubey was going to inaugurate the ambulance the following day with claims that they were part of a new drive to get more ambulances for the city during the peak of the second wave of COVID-19 in Bihar.

The following day Pandey reported from Buxar again, after the inauguration. His report quoted health officials and the driver of the ambulance who said that the ambulance had been inaugurated three times prior to this. It also noted that the ambulances had not been registered since they were first inaugurated in 2019. Pandey specified that he had tried to reach out to Choubey for a comment but had not received a response. Pandey’s second report went viral on social media in Bihar, and several other news organisations including Aaj Tak, Punjab Kesari and ABP News soon reported the story. Tejashwi Yadav, Bihar’s leader of opposition, had also tweeted Pandey’s story.

The story appeared at an inconvenient time for the Bihar wing of the BJP. Just a week prior to it being published, Pappu Yadav, the supremo of the opposition Jan Adhikar Party (Loktantrik), had claimed that Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the MP of Saran district from the BJP, had bought several ambulances under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, which he had not used during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bihar. On 7 May, Pappu Yadav and his party cadre entered the premises of Rudy’s house where they shot videos showing thirty ambulances. The following day, Rudy released a video in which he claimed only 20 ambulances had been parked at his home and that he had been unable to deploy them because of a lack of drivers. Several journalists I spoke to said that the incident was an embarrassment for the BJP and they soon wanted to ensure that they are seen to be providing ambulances services efficiently across the state. “The Rudy issue is the main reason Choubey wanted to relaunch those old ambulances,” Pandey told me.

Pandey had also previously reported about the manner in which Choubey and the Buxar administration handled the pandemic. He had reported on 29 April 2020 that Choubey was using foodgrain that the SJVN had donated as part of their CSR for his own electoral campaign. On 18 May 2021, Pandey reported that Choubey had inaugurated a health centre for the second time.

On 25 May 2021, the Buxar police filed a first-information report against Pandey which included charges of defamation, criminal intimidation, creating a public nuisance and under sections of the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1987. The FIR was based on a complaint filed by Parashuram Chaturvedi, the BJP’s candidate for the Buxar seat in the 2020 Bihar legislative elections. “Umesh Pandey through news articles and personally is threatening and mentally harassing the BJP,” Chaturvedi’s complaint said. “He is also breaking the social fabric and creating tension among people during the national covid pandemic. He is blackmailing Choubey for money and ruining the image of the State government, Central government and Minister Ashwini Choubey.” The complaint listed nine stories Pandey had done about ambulances in Buxar as proof of harassment.

Pandey told me that five days before the FIR was registered, Chaturvedi along with a gunman entered his house and threatened his family. Pandey’s aged parents, his wife and his five-year-old-child stay with him at his home. “Parshuram had visited my house in the evening when I was not there,” Pandey told me. “He literally threatened my father that I must stop writing news on the ambulances otherwise things will go out of hand.” He told me his entire family were terrified after Chaturvedi left. “They should have sent a legal notice to my office if they thought any news I published was incorrect,” Pandey told me. “His visit to my house was unwanted.” Pandey did not register a complaint against Chaturvedi.

When I spoke to Chaturvedi on 29 May, he confirmed to me that he had gone to Pandey’s house along with a gun man, but he denied threatening Pandey’s family. “I just went there to make him understand that he should not do these things,” Chaturvedi told me. “I have no personal fight with him. He was continuously publishing news against the party and leader and misguiding people. I advised him 20 times that if he wants to do journalism then he should do it being a journalist. If you become a spokesperson of any party and ask questions sitting in the lap of any MLA then leave journalism. But he did not listen. He was tarnishing our leader Ashwini Choubeyji’s image.” Pandey denies ever speaking to Chaturvedi about this. “I have met him only once, when he organised a press conference about the ambulances and we never spoke about my reports,” Pandey told me. Ranjith Kumar Sinha, the in-charge of Buxar town police station, told me that the matter was under investigation so he will not comment about the case.

I asked Chaturvedi if he or other members of the BJP had any proof that Pandey had intimidated them—a charge in the FIR against Pandey. Chaturvedi ignored the question and said, “He was making wild allegations without any proof and misguiding people. Isn’t this a falsehood?” Pandey dismissed all the allegations in Chaturvedi’s complaint. “I never called any other BJP leader except Ashwini Choubey and his photographer, that too for a quote,” he said. Pandey told me he had never faced such targeted harassment in his journalistic career. “I joined ETV Bharat in July 2018 but worked for several other media outlets in Patna before that,” he told me. “I have written countless reports which hold the government as well as elected representatives accountable for their actions before. But have never faced something like this.” Choubey did not respond to phone calls or questions over email.

On the same day the FIR was registered against Pandey, a complaint was also filed against another reporter in Gaya. On 23 May, Ranjan Sinha, a reporter for the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, told me he had received information regarding mismanagement in a COVID-19 ward at the government-run Anugrah Narayan Medical College and Hospital in Gaya. He went to the ward that night following COVID-19 protocols. “I went there after wearing a PPE kit”—personal protective equipment—“and what I saw there was horrifying,” Sinha told me. “At least one family member of every COVID-19 patient was inside the ward, but no one was wearing PPE. Even the health workers did not have access to PPE. Earlier in the day, I had informed the medical superintendent of the hospital about my visit.” Sinha’s report on what he saw was published on 28 May.

On 25 May, Harishchandra Hari, the medical superintendent of ANMCH, submitted a written complaint to the Magadh Medical police station against Sinha. The complaint said that Sinha and his associates forcefully entered the COVID-19 ward and obstructed treatment. “On the night of 23 May, Ranjan and his associates entered the Covid-19 ward forcefully and disturbed the patients who were sleeping,” the complaint letter said. Sinha told me he had gone into the ward alone and had no associates with him. The complaint continued, “When hospital staff told them that they should not enter the ward without following covid-19 protocol, they misbehaved with the staff.” Acting on the complaint, the police lodged an FIR against Sinha under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Disaster Management Act of 2005.

When I spoke to Hari, he told me he had gone to the police station and attempted to withdraw his complaint. “We thought it was best to withdraw,” he told me. He did not explain why he wanted to withdraw the case. When I asked why he had filed a case against Sinha, he told me, “He must have done something wrong and that’s why I complained. What wrong he has done, you must ask him.” Rajesh Kumar, the station-house officer of the Magadh Medical police station, told me, “The FIR can be withdrawn only after a court order.” He continued, “The police don’t, at the moment, need to question the accused. We will take statements from the complainants and witnesses, and then further investigate the case.”

Sinha denied that he had misbehaved in any way with the hospital staff. “When a complaint was lodged, I asked the hospital authorities to make the CCTV footage public to show if I have indeed violated covid-19 protocol and misbehaved with hospital staff. But the hospital said that CCTV is not working,” he told me. “My report clearly showed the mismanagement in the COVID-19 ward and the fact that they weren’t even providing their staff with PPE. This is why they filed that case on me.”

Sinha told me that he has been a journalist in Gaya for 22 years, but this was the first time an FIR had been lodged against him. “Gaya has been the den of Naxals. I had met many Naxal leaders for reports, but never faced an FIR,” he told me. “In the last five or six years, things have changed. Now we constantly face pressure from district authorities to not cover some stories.”

Reporters in Bihar have been targeted for reporting non-medical stories during the pandemic as well. On 20 May 2020, Rajnikanth Thakur and Dharmendra Mishra, two reporters of the Patna-based Hindi daily Sanmarg, and Arun Kushwaha, a reporter for Dainik Bhaskar, reported that the police in Madhepura district’s Udakishunganj village and Navin Kumar Jha, a man who ran a local petrol pump, were helping distribute illicit liquor. “We had credible sources who confirmed the liquor smuggling,” Kushwaha told me. “Acting on the information, we had visited the spot, shot a video of the pouches full with country made liquor and published the news.”

The same day, the Udakishangunj police station filed an FIR against all three journalists under various sections of the penal code, including the sections 500, 504, 506, 384, 385, 386, 120(B) and 34. These sections pertain to defamation, extortion by putting a person in fear of death or grievous hurt and criminal conspiracy, among others. The FIR was based on a complaint by Jha. “On 18 May, Rajnikant Thakur with two other persons came to my cow shed on a bike and spread some pouches full with water,” the complaint said. “They all threatened my employees to say on camera that I and Ashok Yadav, with whom I supply milk, are running an illegal liquor business.”

After the FIR, the trio had to flee their homes until the Madhepura sessions court gave them interim bail, on 28 May. “I just published true news but I had to flee like a criminal,” Kushwaha told me. “At times, I felt that I had committed a crime by publishing the news.” While granting interim bail to the trio, Man Mohan Sharan Lal, the judge, wrote, “It appears from the perusal of the documents on behalf of these petitioners that petitioners are press Reporters and they disclosed the sale of wine in collusion with police and when these petitioners published the news of selling wine by the informant in collusion with the police, then these false case has been lodged by the informant in collusion with the police against these petitioners.”

Kushwaha told me he was being framed because his report exposed a criminal nexus between illegal liquor sellers and Shashi Bhushan Singh, the SHO of Udakishangunj police station. “I have written to the National Human Rights Commission, the chief minister Nitish Kumar, the director general of the Bihar police and Madhepura’s superintendent of police,” Kushwaha told me. “I told all of them that the SHO was framing me and I asked for a fair investigation into this. It’s been more than a year but they still haven’t started an investigation into it.” Singh was transferred to the Bihar police prosecution cell on 13 April 2021. Yogendra Kumar, Madhepura’s SP did not respond to questions about the case and neither did Singh.

Following the interim bail judgement, Kushwaha told him the police continued to harass him. On 12 March, more than a dozen police personnel came to his house. “I was not there,” Kushwaha told me. “The police have raided my house at least six or seven times. They used to come in civil dress. My family was anxious. My father is a heart patient. He fell ill after the police raid. As soon as I got bail, I had to rush to Patna for treatment of my father. Later our fellow journalists protested in front of the police station and gave an application to the deputy superintendent of police.” Kushwaha told me the case is still pending in district court and that the police have filed a chargesheet against the three reporters.

Bihar is often characterised as a state with very poor media freedom. In December 2020, an India-based press-freedom group called the Free Speech Collective published a report titled “Behind Bars: Arrests and Detentions of Journalists in India 2010-2020,” that analysed trends in journalistic freedom in various states. The report highlighted that in the past decade, 154 journalists were arrested, detained, interrogated or served show-cause notices in India. A majority of these incidents happened in BJP-ruled states. About 40 percent of the cases the report highlighted were from 2020 alone. However, reporters I spoke to told me that the clampdown on press freedom in Bihar was a rather recent phenomenon, one that began in early 2020.

For nearly half a decade, until the beginning of the pandemic, journalists in Bihar worked with relative safety. Prior to the pandemic, the last major incident of violence against a journalist was the 2016 murder of Rajdeo Ranjan, a reporter for the Hindi daily Hindustan. Following Ranjan’s murder, Bihar has rarely been in the headlines for stifling journalists who are critical of those in power. I had reported previously for The Wire that major reason for this was a campaign by Nitish Kumar, the chief minister, to vastly increase the number of advertisements the government gave to local papers. Between the start of the financial year in 2014 and the end of the financial year in 2019, the Bihar government has given advertisements worth Rs 500 crore to various newspapers and electronic media. This could have reflected in a reduction in critical reporting by journalists in the state.

Amarnath Jha, a senior journalist based in Patna told me this relationship between Kumar and the media was an open secret among journalists in the state. “Nitish Kumar firstly gives huge advertisements to newspapers so they become entirely dependent on the government for their revenue,” he said. “What follows is also a complete surrender of editorial control. If newspapers publish anything against the government there is a complete dry up of their revenue. They are forced to write positive news alone.”

But since April 2020, at least ten journalists have been booked for their work or for their posts on social media. Pawan Chaudhary, a Munger-based web journalist, was arrested in April 2020 for allegedly spreading misinformation about the death of a COVID-19 infected patient. The same month, Amit Poddar, a Begusarai-based journalist, was slapped with an FIR for allegedly violating lockdown protocols. In May 2020, Bihar police lodged an FIR against a Dainik Bhaskar reporter, Gulshan Kumar Mithu, for publishing a report about protests at a government-run quarantine centre demanding basic facilities.

The cases and arrests have continued through the first half of this year too. Two journalists, one with News 18 and one with Aaj Tak, both called Utkarsh Singh, were booked by Bihar police on 20 February 2021 for tweeting that the question papers of the tenth-standard matriculation exam had been leaked. They both later found that the pictures they had received were fake and posted apologies. Both cases are currently being heard in lower courts.

The Bihar government has also passed an order specifically to restrict people from criticising government officials on social media. On 23 January, Bihar’s economic offences unit, the nodal agency to tackle cyber crime in the state, passed an order that criminalised “objectionable comments made by undesirable persons or organisations against the Bihar government on the social media or the Internet.” Opposition leaders, including Tejashwi Yadav, said the move was a clear attempt to curb free speech.

Other journalists told me that newspapers themselves had begun self-censoring over the past few years because they feared government reprisals. A district-level reporter associated with a major Hindi newspaper, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that a majority of his stories were not getting printed. “I am observing that in the last five or six years, my reports which criticise the authorities don’t find a place in the newspaper,” he told me. “When I ask my bosses in Patna about the news reports, they say that they are reviewing the reports. Sometimes they say the story needs more work. But these stories were never published. Many of my stories have been killed in that way.”

There are several reasons for the current clampdown on journalists in the state. As in the case of Pandey and Sinha—who reported on the ambulances and the COVID ward, respectively—reporters find it more pressing to report on illegalities in relation to a poor health administration during the pandemic. The pandemic has created a cash crunch for the government and this has meant a reduction in the number of advertisements given to local newspapers. Without advertisements, newspapers tend to be more critical of the government and the ruling coalition. Finally, several reporters told me that the current crackdown also had to with the results of the 2020 Bihar assembly elections, which gave the BJP a far larger foot hold in the state than they previously enjoyed.

Santosh Singh, a senior journalist with the Bihar-based news channel Kashish News, told me that previously the Bihar government had primarily exercised its control over the media through advertising. “Earlier if the government read any news they didn’t like they would simply slash advertisements from the newspaper for a month or two,” he told me. “The newspaper would immediately relent and begin giving more favourable coverage. That wasn’t great for press freedom but it meant there was always a back and forth, a tug of war where journalists had some space to speak out. But now the trend of FIRs has started in Bihar, which is worrying. If journalists are targeted with FIRs it sends waves of fear across the media fraternity. It will mean that they will completely avoid any news that can put the government in an embarrassing situation. We are already seeing signs of it in the state, reporters have started to completely avoid critical reporting.”

“FIRs against journalists is the Gujarat model which is being replicated in Bihar,” Rajendra Tiwari, the former corporate editor of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar, told me. “Nitish Kumar uses different tactics for gagging the media. He stops giving advertisement to the newspapers who publish negative news.” In the 2020 Bihar assembly election, the BJP got 74 seats whereas Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) got only 43 seats—28 less than in the 2015 assembly elections. With fewer seats compared to the BJP, Kumar, despite being the chief minister, became a junior partner in the alliance. “The BJP was in the driving seat and forcing Kumar to take stern actions against journalists, particularly by filing cases, when reporters were critical of the BJP,” Tiwari told me. Kumar did not respond to queries over email.

Shashi Bhushan, a senior journalist with the web portal First Bihar, told me that during the tenure of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which ended in 2005, members of the ruling party would complain to news organisations about journalists, but would rarely complain to the police. “I have seen the last three tenures of the RJD. During this time if a critical news report got published in a newspaper, then RJD people would complain to senior journalists in that newspaper,” Bhushan said. “But these complaints never got given to the police or lodged as FIRs, they were just a veiled threat. Now things have changed. If critical news is published regarding any government department, a random politician jumps into action. This is happening because of an unholy nexus between bureaucrats and ruling coalition politicians in the state.”

Kamal Kant Sahay, the general secretary of the Bihar Working Journalists Union, pointed out that Nitish Kumar constantly tried to paint himself as an advocate for free speech. “He says that he protects the right of freedom of speech but it is not visible in his actions,” Sahay told me. “Journalists are being targeted for exposing government’s mismanagement. Government officials have completely failed to manage the COVID-19 situation in the state. And when we so much as point to where things are going wrong, they file FIRs against us.”