Kolkata: The editor of Anandabazar Patrika, the highly respected and largest-circulated Bangla newspaper, has resigned, with the news emerging four days after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the 98-year-old daily of showing the state government in bad light and the editor was summoned by Kolkata Police for allegedly publishing fake news.
The resignation of Anirban Chattopadhyay, 62, is snowballing into a major political controversy, with allegations being made about “pressure” from the Mamata Banerjee government and the threat to media freedom in West Bengal.
On 27 May, Banerjee had launched a tirade against the media in general and Anandabazar Patrika in particular for what she said was pulling down the image of the state with their negative coverage of the government’s efforts to handle the coronavirus and cyclone Amphan crises.
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar took up the issue even before Chattopadhyay’s resignation, tweeting the day after the police summons were issued that press freedom was non-negotiable, and that he had sought updates from the home secretary about the case in which the editor was summoned to the Hare Street police station.
Government officials like Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, Home Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay and Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma did not respond to text messages and emails from ThePrint asking for a comment on this controversy, while Chattopadhyay did not answer calls or texts.
Speaking to journalists at the state secretariat Nabanna on 27 May, one week after cyclone Amphan had struck West Bengal, CM Mamata Banerjee specifically mentioned Anandabazar Patrika as part of a larger attack on the media’s “negative” coverage of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and then Amphan.
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“I am forced to say this, but the role of some media organisations has been terrible. I am sorry to say, the role of ABP, the newspaper, has been very bad to say the least. You (the paper) did not give the state government time to get its act in order; and started politicising the issue in a matter of two days. You created panic, spread apprehensions and provoked people,” she said.
She also made an unsubstantiated reference to the ABP Group being in a business relationship with private power utility CESC, and implied that the government was being maligned for the shortcomings of CESC.
“You people can have differences with CESC, but that should not be used as a handle to malign the state government,” the CM said.
At the time, both the government and the CESC were facing criticism for failing to prepare for cyclone Amphan and the resultant power failures and struggles to restore it. Banerjee claimed CESC got the rights to supply electricity in Kolkata during the Left Front government’s tenure, and blamed it for not being able to restore power when protests erupted.
Several localities in Kolkata faced almost a week-long power outage after Amphan hit the state, and the CESC even put out an advertisement apologising to people, claiming it was facing acute stuff shortage due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown.
ThePrint reached CESC through emails seeking its comments on what the CM said, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
Banerjee went on to accuse Anandabazar Patrika of damaging the state’s image.
“We were asking for help from select groups, but that did not materialise. You have caused unthinkable damage to the state’s image and you will realise this only when you yourselves face some problems,” she said, before making a reference to recent lay-offs and pay-cuts in the ABP Group.
“You people do business in Bengal, sack people here and even cut the salary of your employees. You would have been taught a lesson if you were in any other state, and under any other government. We are a humane government; we work in democratic ways and we do not believe in taking action against such acts that you do,” Banerjee said.
Police case against Anandabazar Patrika
Within hours of Banerjee’s comments, Chattopadhyay was issued summons to appear before the Hare Street police station.
Police sources said a case had been lodged by the state’s information and cultural affairs department against the “editor and other responsible persons” on 5 April, and that multiple charges had been invoked, including “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot”, providing “false information to provoke public servant to cause injury” to others, intentionally insulting and provoking one to breach public peace, and conducting public mischief.
A senior police officer who did not wish to be named said the government took action against the newspaper for what he said was publishing “fake news” in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, although he did not elaborate on what the alleged fake news items were. No reports or other articles have been cited officially, but sources within Anandabazar Patrika said they could’ve been about the state government’s handling of the Covid crisis, doctors not getting PPE kits, the condition of Covid hospitals or about post-Amphan management.
Chattopadhyay had been first summoned in connection with this case in early April, soon after the case was filed, but he had sent a legal response to the police, explaining his inability to go to the police station as he is a senior citizen and has been asked by doctors to avoid public places. He also attached a medical certificate.
This response was not followed up on, but Chattopadhyay was again summoned on 27 May, and didn’t appear for the same reason cited above. However, just four days after the second summons, news emerged that he had resigned as editor and was replaced by Ishani Datta Ray.
After the publication of this report, a top IPS source in the Kolkata Police contacted ThePrint and claimed that the first and only summons were issued to Chattopadhyay on 25 May, two days before Mamata’s outburst against the media and Anandabazar Patrika. The source said 28 May, the day after the CM spoke, was the scheduled date for Chattopadhyay’s appearance, when he sent the response saying he wouldn’t be able to appear.
Governor raises questions about press freedom
In his 28 May tweet, Governor Dhankhar also tagged the Editors Guild of India, and stated: “Press freedom is non negotiable. It is spine of democracy and guaranteed by Constitution.”
Press freedom is non negotiable. It is spine of democracy and guaranteed by Constitution. @IndEditorsGuild
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 28, 2020
That wasn’t the last reference he made to press freedom in Bengal either — on 31 May, Governor Dhankhar was even more direct in his accusations against CM Mamata.
Interacting with Press Club Executive tomorrow to consider several disturbing actions @MamataOfficial compromising freedom of media and implication of journalists in criminal cases.
As watchdog Press Club in State and National level need to ensure independence of media.
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 31, 2020
ThePrint approached several executive members of the Kolkata Press Club on their interaction with the governor, but none wished to come on record. A senior member said on the condition of anonymity: “It was just a courtesy call. The issue with the Anandabazar Patrika editor has not been raised and discussed.
“Moreover, the Press Club is a welfare organisation, and it has nothing to do with the internal affairs of a publication.”
Dhankhar also tweeted on 1 June, the day after the news of Chattopadhyay’s resignation emerged, squarely blaming CM Mamata.
Media’s fight to hold moral voice of people seems to have given up in West Bengal.
A dark blemish on liberty and freedom in one of the most liberal societies!(1/2)
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) June 1, 2020
Also on 1 June, CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra took to Twitter to demand a statement from CM Mamata, alleging that she had created political pressure on ABP, and also drawing parallels to allegations against BJP governments elsewhere.
“The chief minister should have the courage to make a statement about such a serious allegation. Otherwise, it has to be assumed that the media is being controlled according to the wishes of the CM herself, which means the BJP and the Trinamool are equal. Anandabazar editor resigned under the pressure of Mamata!” Mishra tweeted in Bangla.
মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর এই রকম একটি গুরুতর অভিযোগ সম্পর্কে একটি বিবৃতি দেওয়ার মতো সৎসাহস থাকা উচিত। না হলে ধরে নিতে হবে যে খোদ মুখ্যমন্ত্রীর ইচ্ছানুযায়ী সংবাদ মাধ্যমগুলো নিয়ন্ত্রিত হচ্ছে,মানে বিজেপি ও তৃণমূল সমান।
মমতার চাপে আনন্দবাজার পত্রিকার সম্পাদকের পদত্যাগ! https://t.co/XZuU2TaI2o
— Surjya Kanta Mishra (@mishra_surjya) June 1, 2020
Swapan Dasgupta, BJP Rajya Sabha MP and columnist, added that the situation was grim in West Bengal.
“Press freedom has been strangled in its true sense. This is not about Anirban Chattopadhyay of ABP; there can be a curious coincidence between the summons sent to him and his decision to resign, but it has become a general rule,” Dasgupta told ThePrint.
“The utterances of the chief minister threatening media in press conferences are out in the open. Many small news channels were intimidated and journalists were served with summons. It is a series of intimidation, and perhaps the highest degree of intolerance,” he added.
ThePrint emailed the Chief Minister’s Office seeking comment on the issue, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
On the Trinamool Congress side, meanwhile, MP Saugata Roy vouched for Chattopadhyay and espoused press freedom.
“I am not aware of this particular case. But I know Anirban; he is a brilliant student of Presidency College and an erudite person. I will also support press freedom; it should be upheld and preserved by the government and by all media houses,” Roy said.
Anandabazar Patrika and its former editor
Anandabazar Patrika is the No.1 circulated daily in the Bangla language, and is almost considered a part of the fabric of Bengali society. On several occasions, it has faced criticism for taking sides politically, but has remained at the forefront of Bangla journalism.
The ABP Group, meanwhile, has expanded to a massive media conglomerate of other publications as well as television channels in various languages.
The group’s patriarch, Aveek Sarkar, who was also editor of Anandabazar Patrika, stepped down in 2016 and handed over control of the group to his younger brother, Arup Sarkar. At the same time, Chattopadhyay became the editor of the group’s flagship paper, the first person outside the Sarkar family to assume the responsibility.
According to a brief biography on its website, before taking charge of the paper, the 62-year-old Chattopadhyay was responsible for its editorial pages, the book review section, the Sunday section ‘Rabibashoriyo’, fortnightly education supplement Prastuti, and a number of special supplements.
Chattopadhyay also writes a column on economic development. In fact, he started his career with the paper as a writer on economic issues in 1983, and moved to the editorial department two years later.
He is an alumnus of Kolkata’s Presidency College, and worked there as a research fellow in the Centre for Economic Studies.
ThePrint’s texts to Aveek Sarkar and group CEO D.D. Purakayastha for this report remained unanswered. Arup Sarkar could not be reached for comment — his office refused to share his contact details or email ID, saying he and his secretaries were working from home. An email sent to Anandabazar Patrika’s general email id, email@example.com, received no response.
(This report has been updated after a senior IPS source claimed the summons to Chattopadhyay were issued before Mamata’s outburst, not after.)
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