Scribe-bashing, when will it end? (Vidya Heble, 1991)


Scribe-bashing, when will it end?

[This article was published in the June-November 1991 issue
of NewsSpeak, the quarterly publication of the Goa Union of
Journalists.]

[BY VIDYA HEBLE] An assault on a journalist is, at the most,
a nine-day wonder. If at all. Even the hue and cry raised
over the brutal beating-up of O Herald’s Anthony Fernandes on
March 22, 1991 — which actually brought to the fore the
whole issue of assaults on (and freedom of) the Press — has
died down to a mere memory.

This statement is justified because the long history of
attacks on journalists shows up precisely this. As a GUJ
pamphlet puts it, the list of those who have been attacked or
threatened down the years — even if one takes only recent
years — makes “frighteningly long reading”.

Going by available records alone, it started as far back as
around 1979. Then Gomantak correspondent Kalidas Kanekar was
assaulted by the Police during the Collem teachers’
agitation.

It has now come to the most recent assault on Anthony
Fernandes by goondas. In between, there have been many cases,
involving unknown elements, mobs and even the Police as those
responsible. Which, in parenthesis, leads one to wonder
whether the only difference between goondas and policemen is
that the latter are in uniform.

Among the other victims of assaults who suffered as a direct
result of discharging their journalistic duties have been
Gomantak correspondents Vishal Kalangutkar and Ramnath
Dessai, O Herald photographer Menino Afonso (in two different
cases), Rashtramat executive editor Sitaram Tengse, Gomantak
Times correspondents Freddy Dias and Edmund Antao,
Maharashtra Times correspondent Suresh Kankonkar, Tarun
Bharat correspondent Sunil Fatarpekar, O Heraldo photographer
Joe D’Souza, O Heraldo editor Rajan Narayan and the Navhind
Times photographer Joy Vaz.

Besides, PTI, Gomantak and Gomantak Times have also received
threatening anonymous telephone calls in the course of their
publishing reports on various issues.

In all these cases, there has either been absolutely no
action or the action taken has been so half-hearted and
diluted that it has been of no practical use.

For instance, in the Joy Vaz case, the Collector of North Goa
held an inquiry into the assault of the young photographer by
a senior Police officer and other police personnel, in the
presence of eye-witnesses. The Collector’s report however
concluded that there was insufficient evidence to press the
charges, and the case was dropped.

After Menino Afonso was attacked, once again by policemen,
GUJ tied up with the Department of Information and Publicity
to issue armbands, for identification, to field journalists.
This however, as inevitably it would when a careless
bureaucracy is involved, backfired when armbands were sported
by all and sundry, even departmental peons.

In the other cases, there has been no action taken to
apprehend the culprits, and the only tangible official action
noticed has been the provision of Police protection to Rajan
Narayan and the offices of O Heraldo and Gomantak/Gomantak
Times.

Why is this so?

GUJ (the Goa Union of Journalists) on its part has tried
varied measures to tackle these cases, whenever it has
received complaints to the effect.

In fact, the Joy Vaz case saw an impressive morcha and a
dharna before the Police headquarters, with the
Inspector-General of Police even agreeing to suspend the
Police officer concerned, pending the enquiry.

And the GUJ action in the Anthony Fernandes case has been
perhaps unprecedented, with public meetings held in Panaji,
Margao and Vasco, morchas in Panaji and Margao, and a
week-long chain hunger strike at the Panaji ferry point,
besides memoranda and meetings with the Goa Governor, the
Chief Minister and others.

The net result? Zero, it would seem.

Action had to be forthcoming from the Government. But what
the Government actually did was to promulgate the National
Security Act (NSA). This was never a demand of the Goa Union
of Journalists, for the NSA is, as we are only painfully
aware, much more often than not, misused; and the GUJ itself
was criticised for this act of the Government.

But the men who brutally assaulted Anthony Fernandes are
still free. And there is no guarantee that another Anthony
Fernandes somewhere else will not be beaten near-unconscious
at any time for penning the truth.

The reason for the Government’s action — nay, its hesitation
— to make even a definite statement on the whole case is
clear. The people about whom Anthony Fernandes wrote, the
people who then hit him with swords and iron rods, themselves
enjoy political patronage. Immense money power is also wielded
by this section, which makes politicians reluctant to
antagonise them.

What then must GUJ do to secure justice to its members?

Drastic action seems to be the answer. What form should this
take and how drastic should it be? The main weapon
journalists have is their pen — the power of their words. In
order to use this weapon, GUJ needs the backing of newspaper
editors and managements.

This is essential.

O Heraldo, Gomantak and Gomantak Times have been cooperative
in sticking-up for journalists assaulted. But photographer
Joy Vaz found himself in dire straits when his editor claimed
that he had never been sent on the assignment at which he was
assaulted.

Cooperation in this kind of a case is difficult to expect.
And cooperation is essential to prevent field staff from
being assaulted while covering agitations, morchas and the
like, the newspaper could at least provide armbands stating
clearly the newspaper’s name, and this could be given to the
staffer assigned to cover the event.

And when a case like this comes up, the newspaper has to
support its employees, because it is while working for the
newspaper that the employee suffers, and so it is as much an
attack on the publication as on the individual.

It is desirable that the Goa Union of Journalists and the Goa
Editors’ Guild discuss this issue and work out a strategy, or
at least, a loose plan, for concerted action in cases of such
a nature.

For such cases will perhaps continue. As the people are more
and more dissatisfied with the way things stand, as
anti-social elements become bolder, as the Press beleaguered
by competition grows increasingly vocal, lathis and iron rods
will be wielded only more often and more forcefully.

We must be prepared.
——————————————–
Vidya Heble worked for the Gomantak Times in its early days,
and after both reporting and editing for a number of
different publications, is now based in Singapore.

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