In Bengal, journalists who display an independent streak are warned and, in case of continued defiance, which is, filing reports against the ruling party, are shunted off
India has slipped down from rank 142 in 2021 to 150 this year in the press freedom index as evaluated by the Paris-based organisation RSF (Reporters without border). RSF assessed India as one of the most dangerous countries for media, with an average of 3-4 journalists being killed each year. While several points RSF reported are self-contradictory and appear to be empirical, containing foggy areas of bias, their overall assessment of press freedom in India can’t be ruled out ab initio. The various States of India have indeed imposed a grave crackdown on press freedom e.g. West Bengal. Starting right from 2012, Mamata Banerjee-led Government created hurdles and impediments for a free press that gradually changed mainstream West Bengal media into mere mouthpieces of GOWB. Keeping in mind that the RSF report is neither transparent enough of methodology nor of quality and bias elimination of data, given below is a timeline of methodical curb on press
freedom in West Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee said, “whatever is written in certain newspapers is a lie.” “Why would media portray my Govt in a bad light? For higher TRP?” She asked. Mamata Banerjee herself decided which newspapers would qualify to be stacked in the public libraries and which ones won’t. She threatened the media, implying that in terms of choosing newspapers for public libraries, she might censor media houses to a greater extent if need be. In April, professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University was arrested for sharing a cartoon on Facebook lampooning Mamata Banerjee. He was first attacked by TMC supporters and then arrested under 3 serious charges by the police. In December, Banerjee again slammed the media and urged people not to pay heed to negative reports implying negative reports about her Government were canards by the media.
In June, Mamata Banerjee’s party men tried to burn a journalist alive and heckled four others at Barrackpore of North 24 Parganas district. The press went to cover incidents of murder and violence out of infighting within TMC. Astik Chatterjee of ABP Ananda and Barun Sengupta of 24 Ghanta were beaten black and blue while Chatterjee lost consciousness and Sengupta faced an attempt to burn him alive. They were marginally saved as locals arrived in large numbers. Kolkata Press Club condemned the attack on journalists, while Minister Partha Chatterjee, initially denying the allegation, later assured to take steps.
As declared by the MoS MHA Haribhai Chaudhary in the parliament on August 4, 2015, there were 113 incidents of attacks on the press across all the States of India in 2014. This number, however, didn’t include incidents of West Bengal as the State chose not to share such data with the Centre. Mamata Banerjee never agreed to share anything that might reflect GOWB’s wrongdoings. As reported by Anurag Dey of The News Minute, a policeman warned journalists in December, “Don’t loiter around or you will be arrested.” GOWB then issued a police circular stating a Standard Operating Procedure of movement within the State Secretariat by which pressmen’s free movement was restricted only in the first floor. As Saradha Chit Fund Scam got exposed, holding TMC heavyweights allegedly involved in it, Mamata Banerjee waged almost a war against a section of the media. Her attempt to gag the press filled journalists with indignation and Press Club of Kolkata was infuriated to interpret such a move as “aimed at stifling the voice” of the fourth estate. Such condemnation, however, didn’t yield anything positive. Press got restricted not only in the State Secretariat but everywhere else wherever investigating agencies were probing the multi-crore Chit Fund Scam. People termed
Mamata Banerjee a ‘fascist’.
In August, a correspondent of Uttarbanga Sangbad, Chayan Sarkar, who was writing about corruption in West Bengal, went missing while his bike, notebook, and wallet were found near a railway station. A few hours before getting lost, Sarkar filed a police report about a recent attack on his house by men who threw stones at his house and threatened him with consequences if he continued to report the college admission scandal. Bidhannagar Municipal Poll in 2015 displayed perhaps the worst fate of journalists in West Bengal since 2011. Almost 20 of them, including camerapersons, were beaten up, while 17 others faced assault. Journalists of Indian Express, The Telegraph, News Time, ABP Ananda, ETV, 24 Ghanta, Kolkata TV, Anandabazar Patrika and other media houses faced atrocities as they attempted to cover the organised vote loot mechanism by the ruling party hoodlums.
Media got consistently attacked during West Bengal Assembly Election 2016 when some of the journalists got their limbs fractured. Launching a scathing attack against ABP media group, Mamata Banerjee stated she’d give them lollipops to suck after winning the election. As ABP, before Assembly Poll, went all out against her party men’s corruption, Mamata said ABP group took to conspiracy against her. Incidents of communal riots gradually increased in West Bengal under the realm of Mamata Banerjee but remained unreported by the media as Mamata interpreted ‘reporting riot’ as ‘act of fanning riot’. An FIR was lodged against a Zee News Anchor for reporting 2016, Dhulagarh riots.
Mamata Banerjee pulled up the authorities of Shri Shikshayatan, a private girl’s school in Kolkata, for playing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Maan Ki Baat’ for students. No student must be made to listen to PM’s speech, she warned. Political unrest (demanding a separate State) in Darjeeling began in the month of June while ABN News Network, the only Nepali language satellite channel in India, was banned by Mamata Banerjee’s government as it covered the pro-Gorkhaland khukhri rally in Darjeeling on July 21. GOWB reportedly banned many pro-Gorkhaland Facebook pages too. In July, WB police arrested a 17 years’ minor boy for a Facebook post.
Several journalists including women (Pragya Saha of a local news channel) who tried to cover the process of nomination-filing for the Panchayat Poll were assaulted and held against their will by TMC workers on April 23. It began on April 9, when Biplob Mondal, a Times of India photographer, attempted to capture a few pictures of the nomination proceedings on his phone in front of South 24 Parganas’ administrative building. A Group of men physically intimidated him to delete all photos, took him to a nearby village, stripped him naked, took his nude shots and threatened him they’d make them viral. On the same day, ETV Bharat’s Manas Chattopadhyay was hit on his head for taking photos. Following these, the Press Commission urged GOWB to take steps while journalists took to the streets in protest. Even then, massive violence still erupted against the press on April 23. Lurid violence was unleashed to prevent opposition candidates from filing nominations. As TMC didn’t want the press to cover those scenes, deliberate attacks on pressmen were launched. The International Press Institute, a global network of editors, journalists and media executives, condemned such attacks and marked them “a well-planned act of violence against journalists”. Desi media, however, didn’t raise their voice much. Mamata Banerjee’s consistent effort to curb press freedom since 2012 started yielding results desirable to her.
During the Lok Sabha Election, journalists kept on getting attacked in West Bengal. The International Federation of Journalists and its Indian affiliate, the National Union of Journalists (India), condemned such violence against the press and urged GOWB to take action against violence mongers. Hoodlums allegedly of TMC assaulted journalists (from News X, The Indian Express, ABP Ananda and Zee News) physically, vandalised media vehicles and intimidated them into leaving the place. Two journalists were injured when TMC workers allegedly ransacked BJP candidate Arjun Singh’s vehicle at Tetulia village.
Mamata Banerjee pulled-up the authorities of Shri Shikshayatan, a private girl’s school in Kolkata, for playing PM Modi’s ‘Maan Ki Baat’ for students. No student must be made to listen to PM’s speech, she warned. Political unrest (demanding a separate State) in Darjeeling began in the month of June 2017 while ABN News Network, the only Nepali language satellite channel in India, was banned by Mamata Government as it covered the pro-Gorkhaland khukhri rally in Darjeeling on July 21
West Bengal police aggressively filed FIRs one after another against 5 TV journalists who conducted a sting operation in November 2019 showing West Bengal Ministers cum TMC MLAs taking bribes. Supreme Court, however, restrained West Bengal police from arresting them, saying journalists can’t be arrested for conducting a sting operation. In spite of such order, West Bengal police arrested that year two journalists of ‘Arambagh TV’ as they reported on alleged corruption in the distribution of government funds to private clubs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, Mamata Banerjee reportedly issued a warning to journalists, asking them to behave “properly” and not to fall for “BJP’s propaganda” during the coronavirus outbreak. In May, GOWB banned the broadcast of a News Channel, Calcutta News, on various cable networks in Kolkata and surrounding areas for being critical of Mamata Banerjee’s administration. In September, West Bengal police opened an investigation into an editor of Anandabazaar Patrika, Anirban Chattopadhyay, following a senior bureaucrat’s complaint over the newspaper’s coverage of the pandemic and cyclone Amphan. In December, the Kolkata Press Club issued a statement condemning a comment made by TMC MP Mahua Moitra for calling local journalists and press ‘two paisa press’.
Mamata Banerjee kept on threatening people and journalists with consequences (“sobaike dekhe Nebo”) once the central force left the State. As a result, during the post-poll mayhem in WB, the majority of media houses were absent to cover wild violence upon the State’s electorate
However, India Press Freedom Report of 2020-21 released by Rights and Risks Analysis Group stated West Bengal to have shown only 2 cases of targeting media houses and journalists that didn’t match the reality. Moreover, while RRAG had no problems in getting reports of press intimidation from UP, MP, Bihar, Tripura, and J&K, the Group didn’t put enough emphasis on the fact that West Bengal didn’t share their data of press attacks with GOI, which passively indicated the true picture of West Bengal regarding press freedom to be perhaps the worst of all which RRAG didn’t assert.
During West Bengal Assembly Election, journalists were physically attacked in places like Keshpur, and Nandigram. In several other places, Mamata Banerjee kept on threatening people and journalists with consequences (sobaike dekhe Nebo) once the central force left the State. As a result, during the post-poll mayhem in WB, the majority of media houses were absent to cover wild violence upon the State’s electorate.
While covering the Municipal poll in February, at least nine journalists were reportedly assaulted and physically wounded in different municipality areas, including North Dumdum, Kanthi and others.
As grievous press attacks turned the new normal in the State, West Bengal alone is supposed to pull India’s press freedom score down to a great extent in 2022. However, the exact methodology of index calculation by RSF is not known. As the assessment comprises largely qualitative notes, one can’t be sure of the extent of precision of such a report.