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Violence against journalists continues in Chhattisgarh state

(IFJ/IFEX) - March 29, 2011 - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is deeply concerned by continuing reports of the harassment and violent intimidation of journalists in Dantewada district in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh state in central India.

Since the active denial of access to the site of a developing story early last week, which the IFJ noted with concern, sources in Chhattisgarh have revealed that there has been a sequence of incidents in which journalists seeking to travel to the scene of a purported armed encounter between security forces and Maoist insurgents have been blocked and assaulted, reportedly with the sanction of the police.

Following initial media reports that a number of homes in the tribal village of Tarmedla and its environs had been razed by security forces as reprisal for a Maoist attack on an armed patrol, the district administration in Dantewada constituted a special team to determine the facts and distribute relief supplies. Bastar Impact editor Suresh Mahapatra was accompanying the team to Tarmedla on March 25, when the team was intercepted en route by a group that reportedly included police personnel.

The driver of one of the vehicles carrying relief supplies to the displaced families was beaten up, government officials in the team were compelled to turn back and one of the team's cars was damaged in a collision, seemingly deliberate, with a truck. The journalists were allowed to proceed, but were reportedly trailed by police vehicles on their return journey. On reaching the district headquarters town, the journalists learnt of an arrest warrant against them for allegedly ramming their vehicle into a truck.

The journalists were spared further harassment by the intervention of top officials of the civil administration, but it is believed that the district police have registered a case against them and might press for their arrest.

On March 25, a team led by the social activist and former member of Parliament, Swami Agnivesh, was intercepted and forced to turn back when on its way to Tarmedla. Journalists travelling with the team had their laptop computers and cameras snatched, though these were later returned.

Agnivesh sought yet again to make the trip to Tarmedla the following day, after an assurance of safe passage from the highest elected official of the state, Chief Minister Raman Singh. Though granted police protection on this phase of his mission, the team was met in the Dornapal area by a large group of local residents who heckled its members and assaulted the journalists. The police reportedly did little to contain the violence after the leader of their party, an officer of the rank of Additional Superintendent, was pushed aside and injured.

During the incident Zee TV correspondent Naresh Mishra, a senior member of the local working journalists' union, the Chhattisgarh Shramjeevi Patrakar Sangh, became separated from the media group and suffered a severe beating. Azad Saxena of the ETV news channel had to seek shelter in a village for several hours before returning home much later. The windows of the car that his colleague, cameraman Srinivas was travelling in, were shattered. A journalist who had come across from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, Venu Gopal, was also reported missing for several hours, though he has now found his way back home.

"The IFJ extends it support to journalists in Dantewada district and the wider region of Bastar in Chhattisgarh state, as they seek to cope with a situation of escalating violence," IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.

"We are encouraged by the display of solidarity by journalists who on March 27 organised a protest demonstration in Jagdalpur, principal town of the Bastar region."

The IFJ calls upon the local administration in Dantewada district and the Chhattisgarh State Government to ensure accountability for the most recent sequence of violent actions against journalists.

"We call upon the local administration to make an example of those behind these attacks and establish a firm norm that violence against journalists will be firmly dealt with," Park said.
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