Amid growing unrest among journalists in Chhattisgarh, the Bhupesh Baghel government, in the upcoming winter session, is likely to enact a comprehensive law for protecting scribes from various threats. The draft Chhattisgarh Protection of Mediapersons Act will be the second such legislation by any state for journalists after Maharashtra, which passed a similar law in November 2019.
Chhattisgarh’s proposed legislation covers several areas that have been left unaddressed in the Maharashtra legislation.
The key to such a law lies in its definition of the term ‘mediaperson’ and the various protections available to them. Chhattisgarh’s proposed law includes “stringers” and “hawkers” in its definition, even an “agent, regularly involved in collecting and forwarding news or information to Mediapersons or Media Establishments”. Similarly, the protection available to them is not just against harassment or physical violence, but also unfair prosecution.
Explaining the rationale of this legislation, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel told me: “Many journalists (in Chhattisgarh) don’t have any registration. Several media houses don’t even give them identity cards. They work all through their lives but get no recognition. They face perpetual threat. We need a law to provide protection to journalists.”
The proposed law has a provision to register mediapersons in the state and defines “Person Who Requires Protection” as both the registered mediapersons “facing threats of harassment, intimidation or violence in connection with their profession”, and those “not registered as mediapersons such as technical support staff, drivers, interpreters, Outside Broadcasting Van operators and all other persons facing threats of harassment, intimidation or violence on account of their connection with the Registered Mediaperson”.
The inclusion of “all other persons” means that the relatives and friends of mediapersons will also be under the protective cover of the proposed law.
The draft legislation also mandates the inclusion of women members on various panels to be constituted under the proposed law. The three-member panel to supervise the registration of mediapersons will have a bureaucrat and two journalists — one of whom shall be a woman. Similarly, the committee for the protection of mediapersons — the backbone of the proposed law — shall have three journalists as members, at least one of whom shall be a woman.
The draft Bill also proposes to provide a 24-hour helpline for the mediapersons. The protection plan will be formulated and emergency measures will be deployed in consultation with the person who requires protection, except in cases when the threat is so pressing that there is no time for consultation. If a district unit fails to take measures, the central committee will step in.
As journalists are facing various kinds of harassment and false cases across the country, several provisions of Chhattisgarh’s legislation can set an example for other states. In fact, its first test will be in Chhattisgarh itself. Consider last week’s case against the Ambikapur-based journalist Manish Soni after he made a video report that went against some local Congress leaders. The video was subsequently morphed by some unidentified persons, but soon the annoyed local Congress leaders sought an opportunity and managed to get an FIR registered against Soni. While some state Congress leaders came to support him, the Ambikapur leaders refused to budge.
In March 2019, following on its promise made in the 2018 assembly election manifesto, the Congress government set up an 11-member committee under retired Supreme Court judge Aftab Alam to draft a legislation for the protection of journalists. The members included retired high court judge Anjana Prakash, Chhattisgarh Director General of Police D.M. Awasthi and Baghel’s media advisor Ruchir Garg, who was himself a journalist for nearly 30 years before joining the Congress in 2018.
After framing the draft Bill, the panel toured various cities of Chhattisgarh in November 2019 and held Jan Sabhas, meeting journalists and public, and inviting suggestions. Accordingly, a second draft was prepared and put online for consultations in September this year, inviting a second round of suggestions. The fresh draft is now ready and should be enacted in the state assembly’s winter session.
Key suggestions of public and journalists that were incorporated in the draft Bill are inclusion of hawkers as mediapersons, a committee to protect journalists to be headed by a person who has been a high court judge, and penalty on civil servants who fail to perform their duties under the proposed law.
The Maharashtra legislation, called the Maharashtra Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, defines “Media Person” as “a person whose principal avocation is that of a journalist and who is employed as a journalist, either on regular or contract basis, in, or in relation to, one or more media institutions and includes an Editor, Sub-Editor, News Editor, Reporter, Correspondent, Cartoonist, News-Photographer, Television Cameraman, Leader-Writer, Feature-Writer, Copy-tester and Proof-Reader”. The phrases “principal avocation” and “employed” severely restrict the scope of Maharashtra law.
But Chhattisgarh’s draft defines “mediaperson” more comprehensively and brings a large number of people into its ambit. Section 4 (j) defines “mediaperson” as “a freelance journalist, or an employee or representative of a Media Establishment, and includes an editor, a leader-writer, news editor, sub-editor, feature-writer, copy-editor, reporter, correspondent, cartoonist, news-photographer, video journalist, translator, intern/trainee mediaperson, a newsgatherer, and all other persons regularly involved in collecting and disseminating news, views or opinions”. Section 4 (k) defines a “newsgatherer” as “every person, including a hawker, a stringer, or an agent, regularly involved in collecting and forwarding news or information to Mediapersons or Media Establishments”.
The backbone of the proposed legislation is a Committee for the Protection of Mediapersons to be headed by a person who has been a high court judge, three journalists and a police officer not below the rank of the Additional Director General of Police as members. It also mandates Risk Management Units in every district, comprising the district collector, police superintendent and two mediapersons of more than seven years’ standing, at least one of whom shall preferably be a woman. These units will immediately act on the receipt of complaint or information of any threat or intimidation or violence to any mediaperson, and ensure “Emergency Protection Measures” in urgent cases.
Protection from unfair trial
Perhaps the most significant provision in the proposed law is related to the protection from unfair prosecution, which scores of journalists are facing across India. Under Chhattisgarh’s proposed law, when a mediaperson is “facing an investigation, inquiry or trial,” and the committee believes it to be an unfair prosecution, it “shall conduct an enquiry” to determine whether it is a fit case for withdrawal from prosecution under section 321 of the Code of Criminal Procedure; and if the committee concludes so, it shall forward its report to the public prosecutor in this regard. It may also set up a supervisory team comprising an Inspector General of Police and a Superintendent of Police to investigate the matter and assist the mediaperson.
It also provides for an offence by any public servant who wilfully neglects duties under this Act — he/she shall be punished with imprisonment up to one year or/and fine up to Rs 10,000, or both. However, the Maharashtra law has an extra provision. It says that any act of violence against a mediaperson or loss of property shall be punished with imprisonment up to three years. Chhattisgarh’s proposed legislation is silent on it. When asked, a drafting committee member explained: “IPC already has provisions for any such violence. Had we included that, it might have overlapped with the IPC provisions and required the presidential assent, which would have delayed the passage of the Bill.” It might have some truth in it. The Maharashtra assembly had passed its Bill in 2017, but it received the presidential assent over two years later.
The proposed legislation seems commendable and can be replicated in other states, but the Congress government need not wait for a special law to protect journalists from its own party members.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.