The court, media and the evil nexus

A journalist who filmed an illegal sand mining act in West Bengal had a criminal case lodged against him by the police, threatening arrest. The Calcutta High Court saw through this police-politician nexus and allowed the journalist’s anticipatory bail plea. The media needs such backing to be able to report on critical issues

By Sujit Bhar

Governments across the country have throttled the voice of the media in many ways. And in every such matter that has ever come up before courts or other law enforcement agencies, there has always been a political angle. National media today—especially the leading electronic media houses—all toe the government line, displaying an almost surprising show of obeisance. It has happened at state levels as well, and state governments have employed all methods available to them to bring media houses to heel. If the media falls out of line, swift penalties follow.  

The only saving grace has been the fact that, sometimes, the tottering justice system of the country comes to the aid of the hapless ground level media persons. Such an incident happened at the Calcutta High Court recently, when a Division Bench of Justices Debangsu Basak and Md Shabbar Rashidi granted anticipatory bail to journalist Ranjit Das, who was booked in an extortion case after he shot videos on illegal mining.

In its order, the bench observed that freedom of the press is “indispensable to democracy” and emphasised that there is a need to protect the freedom of a journalist to execute his endeavours. It added: “Freedom of press can be maintained by ring-fencing the press from intimidation. A journalist is part of the press and his freedom to execute his journalistic endeavours needs to be protected.” This is a commendable order within an atmosphere vitiated by political pressure and judicial lethargy.

Journalist Ranjit Das, working for the ABP Ananda (Bengali) news channel, had claimed that he had shot videos of illegal sand mining. Illegal sand mining is rampant in West Bengal and it is an open secret. However, a criminal case was lodged against him and that case seems to have had no basis at all. If that wasn’t all, the police claimed that Das had indulged in extorting money from some persons.

The Court, however, believed that Das may have been falsely implicated in the criminal case and allowed anticipatory bail.

The story is of judicial pertinence and media freedom. However, there is another angle to this. ABP Ananda channel has had a love-hate relationship with the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC), the ruling dispensation in the state. There was a time, when ABP, the owner of the channel and its then chief editor Aveek Sarkar, were at loggerheads with Mamata, so much so that it engendered a family feud and Sarkar was pushed out of top management. His brother Arup Sarkar took over the mantle.

Then came a period of incessant appeasement, to get back state government ads that had gone missing, and ABP Ananda became an ardent follower/supporter of Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress. For ABP Ananda those days, TMC could do no wrong.

The mix changed again within ABP and Mamata suddenly became an anathema for the media house. That is today the position of the media house, leaning quite precariously towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the power at the centre.

In this midst, ground level journalists are in a quandary. If they had started building contacts with an objective or a story in mind, when the house “crosses the floor”, then the same government looks evil to the top management, while the poor reporter on the ground has a tough time switching his/her contacts and focus.

In this case, Das was possibly following up a legitimate tip-off to arrive at a scene where this criminal activity was happening. Illegal sand mining is rampant across India, but specifically so in West Bengal, and there are possibly thousands of reports across the internet alluding to this.

For example, a recent report shows how thousands of villagers in Barjora and Sonamukhi in the Bankura district have even lost their homes, as illegal sand mining on the banks of the Damodar River has resulted in extreme erosion of the banks, with their houses being devoured by the river. The villagers have complained that the ruling TMC has not acted against the illegal miners.

This has been happening for over ten years in the area and several other areas in the state have seen such massive destruction of ecosystems and property.

Rampant mining has also resulted in the river changing direction and expanding its banks, with 12 lives having been lost over the years within sand traps that have developed. The state government seems incapable of handling such issues, and the fear is that certain leaders within the ruling dispensation are themselves involved.

The reporter, obviously, had chanced on one such illegal mining area and had run into some powerful lobby.

Here the problem was, probably, in the particular TMC leader involved in this particular illegal activity. If he/she was not aligned with Mamata or Abhisekh Banerjee (Mamata’s nephew, and officially the No 2 man in West Bengal politics) then he/she is the fall guy and the police will offer no support to the leader and help the journalist. That is the unofficial norm.

In this case, it was possible that the journalist failed to check the antecedents of the leader involved and the police pounced on Das, instead of on the perpetrators of the crime. That was probably how the case was filed. Having a strong anti-Mamata stand, the channel itself was in no position to help its own journalist.

It is in these strange cases that a strong judiciary comes into play. The accepted neutral position of the justice system of India is the strength of the common man and the media. While the media owners themselves switch sides with alacrity, it is the common journalist who cannot, and faces the brunt of it all.

That is what makes this Calcutta High Court judgment a decree worthy of emulation. Therein lies the citizen’s security.

The World Press Freedom Index 2023, published by Reporters Without Borders on World Press Freedom Day on May 3 last year painted a dismal picture of India’s media freedom. It ranked India at 161, among 180 countries, with a score of 36.62. This was 30 positions down from India’s 2022 rank of 150.

Below India were countries such as China, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Myanmar. That is not a good sign for the largest democracy of the world, and if its justice system can overcome the loss of trust that the public has had in it of late, then there is hope yet that the future would be brighter.

These are the types of judgements that inspire faith.