Media bullied against reporting on anti-Muslim violence in Tripura: Editors’ Guild

A fact-finding report by the Editors’ Guild India (EGI) found that the Bharatiya Janata party-led government in Tripura downplayed the communal violence. They aimed to garner Hindu votes for elections in late November and hence used violence during Durga puja in Bangladesh, as an opportunity to isolate the Hindu emotion, in the state.

“The communalism was sought to be justified as a ‘natural reaction’ of the Hindus of Tripura as they had family links with the Hindu population across the border in Bangladesh” said the report.

The EGI sent a three-member team to Tripura between November 28 to December 1 to assess the condition of media freedom in the state after reports of the government using draconian laws to deter journalists and civil society activists from reporting on the communal violence started to spread.

The report accuses the police and the administration of “displaying a lack of professionalism and integrity in dealing with the communal conflict” in the state. However, the same conclusions were arrived at by the group of Supreme court lawyers who investigated Tripura’s communal violence.

The Editors Guild report, exclusively shed light on how the government intimidated the media from reporting against them, hence being complicit “in the growth of muscular majoritarianism that subverts democratic institutions”.

How Tripura government strong-armed journalists:

According to the report, local media has been forced to support the government to keep running as the state uses advertising as a weapon against those whose narrative does not suit their needs. Advertising is one of the major means of gathering funds for media houses and isolating them from the advertisers would mean that the organization suffers losses eventually forcing a shutdown. 

“These include Mrinalini ENN, Din-Raat, Akash Tripura, and Hallbol. Duranto TV in Udaypur was ransacked a few months back,” a senior functionary of THRO claimed.

A BJP leader, explained, “Media has good relations with the government here. Independent journalism is absent here because the media is ‘adjustable’ and willing to compromise. The UAPA charges were made against outside media and not local media. Most journalists are happy here because they get pensions, health insurance and low cost housing. If there is tension with the media then it is quickly resolved – it is relationship between big brother and small brother. Local media did not write directly against the government. It is the outside media that came here and did that.” 

The state termed the violence as a “normal” reaction to what happened in Bangladesh. Any person or entity reporting on the issue–especially those from the outside– was subject to draconian laws like the UAPA, and police action in an attempt to bring them under control.

UAPA charges on Supreme Court lawyers

Fact-finding lawyers of the Supreme Court have also been subject to the insecure political leadership, of the state. Ehtesham Hashmi, Amit Srivastav, Ansar Indori, and Mukesh Kumar were charged with the UAPA for sharing their findings on the violence against minorities in the state in a press conference.

The fact finding report by the lawyers titled “Humanity under attack in Tripura; #Muslim lives matter” revealed that if the BJP government in Tripura wanted to, they could have stopped the violence but they chose to give a free hand to the Hindutva mobs in the state.

Women journalists, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, were also arrested under the UAPA for performing their journalistic duty. Although the Supreme Court came to their immediate rescue.

 “For the first time in the history of Tripura they used UAPA against journalists but then the Supreme Court intervened. They knew that the Supreme Court can come down heavily on them so the government has decided to order a review of the UAPA cases against journalists,” said a Civil Society activist, to the EGI fact-finding team. Although nothing tangible has taken place as part of the review clarified the report. 

The report also explains that even those sympathetic to the government claim, “What they have done to the journalists and the lawyers is an over-reaction and they will have to retrace their steps.”

The report holds that the Tripura police have been instrumental in inciting communal tensions in the state, under the “superannuated” director General of Police who has been given a two-year tenure by the chief minister.

How the police downplayed the communal nature of the violence:

The DGP claimed that an incident of violence took place in Panisagar on October 26 when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad took out a rally against the communal riots during Durga pooja in Bangladesh. “Not a mosque but a “prayer hall” was set on fire. No holy book was targeted and set on fire. Yet, rumors were spread that the holy book had been burnt. The ground in fact was peaceful and the local media was reporting that the area was peaceful,” he claimed.

Independent journalists and the fact-finding team of supreme court lawyers gathered proof that some religious institutions and scriptures had in fact been burned but the police attempted to tone down its effect by stressing that reporters must learn the difference between a prayer hall and a mosque.

There were no arrests made despite proof of communal violence in the state until the courts stepped in due to the “culture of impunity that the state epitomizes”. On the other hand, journalists and lawyers who reported “against the state” were booked under various charges.

“We used the mildest and bailable sections of the UAPA where offences and penalties are up to 7 years imprisonment and therefore do not require them to be arrested. We did not charge them under Chapters 4 and 6 of the UAPA which relate to terrorism and prevent bail being granted. Our aim was only to restrain them and we did not want anyone to be denied bail,” he said in a painful attempt to explain the charges and showcase the police force as neutral. 

Accusing Trinamool Congress of “conspiracy”

The Bilap Deb government was not only sensitive to those reporting on the incidents on the ground but is also “hypersensitive” to the campaign challenge being posed by the TMC.

They arrested youth leader Shyaoni Ghosh for merely raising the slogan “Khela Hobe” and charges of attempt to murder were slapped. 

Any reports against the state were deemed as a “TMC conspiracy” that threatened the careful narrative that the incumbent government wanted to build about itself, to win the municipal elections in the state.