Odyssey of a Karnataka journalist: He exposed wrongdoings and paid for it (Comment)

January 25th, 2009 - 10:46 am ICT by IANS  

We assume, wrongly, that India has a free and vibrant press with unbridled freedom. We assume, wrongly again, that India’s newspapers have the full and utter freedom to expose individual or institutional malfeasance, in politics, business and other spheres of public life.In the event the press fails to expose the corrupt practices of politicians or businessmen—like, say, the gigantic Rs 7,000 crore fraud of Satyam Computer Services—we think it is only because the press is not using its freedom and does not have the courage to stand against big government or deep pocketed companies.

However the odyssey of a Karnataka journalist, B. V. Seetharam, clearly shows how press freedom in India is a mirage. No doubt we have a large and expanding market for newspapers and the press is perceived as vibrant. The way a senior journalist like Seetharam is being harassed by the Karnataka government is also an example of what is wrong with our legal system concerning the press. At the drop of a hat, it is possible for any one or any political party having problem with a newspaper to put some trumped up charges like defamation or disturbing communal or religious harmony etc. against an editor.

Some may also resort to “contempt of court” strategy. In fact editor of Star of Mysore and the author were the victims of this strategy few years back when Mysore Grahakara Parishat was trying to expose the scandal behind People’s Park.

Seetharam was arrested on Jan 4 in an old defamation case filed in July 2007. While that case was filed Seetharam was shown as an editor and publisher when in fact his actual designation was the chairman of Chitra Group, publisher of Karavali Ale, and Canara Times. This time the mistake was corrected and he was taken into custody in handcuffs as a common criminal without a proper warrant order.

This is not the first time Seetharam has been punished by taking him into custody. He was whisked away to jail along with his wife in the middle of the night for publishing a story questioning the propriety of Jain monks to walk around naked in public in 2007.

But it is the backdrop of the latest arrest (a few months after the BJP came to power in Karnataka), the timing of the arrest (after he had accused Hindutva forces of attacking his newspaper for publishing), and the manner in which he has been handcuffed and chained like a common criminal, and taken from city to city (he is currently under treatment in a Mysore hospital), that should make the world sit up and take notice. He had complained to Press Council of India earlier about the harassment by the government.

B.V. Seetharam’s case shows that is not necessarily the full story. The truth is there are plenty of people who do not want negative stories to come out, and are willing to go any distance and adopt any means to ensure that. And there are plenty of people, in power and outside, who are willing to help them in that endeavour.

B.V. Seetharam is a sad victim of that. While we may question his methods and targets based on our individual preferences and prejudices, it must be admitted that Seetharam published articles exposing the wrongdoings of corrupt politicians, incompetent bureaucrats, and dishonest businessmen, among others.

More recently, he had rightly turned his eyes on the growing religion-based communalism on India’s west coast. What we are witnessing through his arrest is that in a surcharged milieu, this can be a lonely battle.

In a political system where the use of extra-constitutional muscle power seems to sit comfortably well with rule-based democracy, an editor like him is bound to have enemies. Such individuals are harassed by the establishment to send a strong signal to others not to follow his example. Seetharam’s victimisation is a sign of that.

While the solidarity shown by the press to Seetharam’s harsh treatment should be admired, we, the public, should wonder why only one section of society has expressed support. Journalist associations in different parts of Karnataka have been holding meetings protesting his arrest in handcuffs. Even International Association of Journalists has protested against his arrest.

What is involved is the freedom of the press to boldly publish the news without fear and favour. Without such press freedom, democracy will lose out as it has been happening in India. Every citizen irrespective of his/her ideology should condemn the treatment doled out to B.V. Seetharam. It is high time that we change the antiquated laws of the British Raj to give real freedom to the press.

(Bhamy V. Shenoy is a consumer activist in Mysore. He can be contacted at bhamysuman@hotmail.com)

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