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Journalists concerned over persecution

Journalists in India are deeply concerned over growing governmental intolerance of dissent. This trend threatens to ultimately stifle the freedom of speech, a vital part of democracy.

Both Indian and foreign journalists have been at the receiving end of the big stick wielded by government agencies. The trend began with the celebrated news portal tehelka.com exposing corruption in defence deals involving high officials. Instead of bringing the guilty to book, myriad government agencies began to harass tehelka CEO and editor Tarun Tejpal Singh and his staff.

Its largest financial backer, First Global, was hounded out of business. Within months, endless number of government agencies summoned tehelka staff over 200 times under one pretext or the other. When government saw that no charge really stuck to the portal, one of its reporters was jailed for being hand in glove with poachers.

To its credit, the Army has found the portalís charges against its officers congnizable and decided to court-martial them. On the other hand, the defence minister, who had to quit in disgrace, was silently reinducted over protests from opposition and media. Another dignitary who had to quit in dishonour was ruling BJPís president Bangaru Laxman. Laxman, who was shown accepting bribe in cash on camera, was reinducted as chairman of the house committee of Rajya Sabha (parliamentís upper house). As the accused continue to enjoy power, journalists involved in the expose are being persecuted.

One of the latest high-profile journalists to be hounded is Alex Perry of the US Time magazine. Since he wrote an unflattering piece about the failing health and personal habits of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, he has unnecessarily been queried about his passport. Of late, government officials have also hinted at denying him extension of his Information Ministry accreditation. All this has come only after he wrote his piece. Before that nobody bothered to enquire about his passport or think of denying him his accreditation.

Another relatively better known case is that of Al Jazeerah TVís correspondent Nasir M. Shadid. The Qatar-based satellite TV was "asked" by the Government of India to replace him with another reporter. The External Affairs Ministry spokesperson gave no explanation for the decision. She said the decision had "nothing to do with his work as a journalist".

The journalistic fraternity in New Delhi feels Shahid was kicked out because the central government did not like his coverage of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, and security forcesí heavy-handed treatment of common Kashmiris. That the Gujarat pogrom had tacit approval (and even direct involvement) of BJP leaders is borne out by a dozen independent enquiries. BJP rules in Gujarat and leads a coalition government at Centre. The most important functionaries at the centre like prime minister and deputy prime minister belong to this party.

That there is a grain of truth in the allegations of human rights abuses by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir was confirmed on Tuesday, July 16, by J&K Chief minister Farooq Abdullah in the state legislative assembly. He said five people killed in cold-blood by security forces in March 2000 allegedly for being "foreign terrorists" were, in fact, local lads who had nothing to do with terrorism. This has been borne out by DNA tests and other corroborating evidence. The young men were killed by security forces who claimed they were involved in the massacre of Sikhs at the time of US President Bill Clintonís visit. The chief minister said security forces officers had been trying to destroy evidence and mislead investigation.

The latest in the series is persecution of Kashmir Times journalist Iftikhar Geelani, posted in New Delhi. He was accused of violating Official Secrets Act for allegedly storing "sensitive" data on his computer regarding Indiaís troops deployment.

The bottom was knocked out of the government case when Geelani said the data had been public knowledge for the last six years and freely available on the Internet. Pakistanís Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis had published the data in 1996 and circulated it worldwide. Ten Indian institutions, some of them government-run, had been sent a copy of each of the booklet.

Finding the case untenable, the police are adding new legal clauses to the charges made against Geelani. The police are saying they got "pornographic material" on his computer. Geelaniís lawyers have announced that they would object to the addition of this piece of afterthought.

Media persons in New Delhi are worried that Geelani is persecuted for being son-in-law of Kashmirís opposition leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. His editor Probodh Jamwal has vouchsafed for his integrity.

The international organisation of journalists, Reporters Without Frontier, has expressed concern over the development. Doyen of Indiaís journalistic corps, Kuldip Nayar, has said that difficult days are lying ahead for Indiaís celebrated press freedom. Nayar, a member of Parliament's upper house, asked the young generation of journalists to fight back governmentís arm-twisting tactics.

The countryís largest political party, which has ruled India for most of the years after independence and is still ruling in 16 states, the Congress Party, has shown concern over the trend.
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