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Journalists endangered by police tactics, says IFJ

(IFJ/IFEX) - September 28, 2009 - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is deeply disturbed over the implications of a security operation in the Indian state of West Bengal, in which the leader of a political group reportedly aligned with the banned Maoist party was arrested by police masquerading as journalists.

According to IFJ sources, Chhatradhar Mahato was arrested on September 26 by police personnel who set up an interview with him posing as journalists.

Mahato had established a group under the title "People's Committee against Police Atrocities" in the town of Lalgarh, in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal, last November.

He has been in hiding in Lalgarh and has evaded repeated search operations by state police. He has however been available to media personnel, who have typically faced no hazards in meeting and interviewing him.

Media reports from India suggest that the West Bengal state police have for some time been tracking the telephone calls of some journalists who have had access to Mahato.

The operation to seize him reportedly began two months ago, when police pretending to be reporters for a Singapore-based news channel contacted Mahato asking for an interview.

It is reported that two such "interviews" were conducted and the police posing as media workers had since been in touch with Mahato by phone. The arrest was carried out by armed police as Mahato presented himself for a purported media interview.

"The police operation in West Bengal compromises the status of journalists and spreads a pall of suspicion over the profession," IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.

"Journalists everywhere enjoy the right to meet and interview individual news-makers. This is a principle that is grounded in the public's right to know and applies even when the individual concerned is a person wanted under the law.

"The IFJ is concerned that this incident in West Bengal will seriously impede the freedom that journalists in India enjoy to access breaking news stories and to meet and interview all parties in any evolving situation.

"We also strongly condemn the surveillance operations that the police carried out on journalists who had met and interviewed Mahato."

The IFJ also expresses concern over the arrest of Laxman Choudhary, a journalist for the daily Sambad in the eastern state of Orissa, ostensibly on charges of "waging war against the state".

The arrest followed the discovery of a parcel containing Maoist literature addressed to Choudhary. Media reports indicate that Choudhary was a popular figure in his home district of Gajapati in Orissa and had acquired a reputation for exposing police corruption.

"The IFJ welcomes the stand taken by journalists' unions in Orissa and expresses its appreciation of a statement by the chief minister of the state that Choudhary's arrest violates basic democratic freedoms," Ms Park said.

"We call upon authorities in Orissa to unconditionally release Choudhary and ensure that he is not subject to any further harassment or intimidation."

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