For A Free Press
20 July, 2005
You will never
fail until you abandon your endeavours
December 13: Vinod K Jose, a reporter with The Indian Express Delhi,
was assigned to cover the farmers agitation in front of the Parliament.
Since Vinod was a Keralite, the Delhi editor thought it fit to assign
him for covering the agitation by the Kerala farmers. After covering
the rally, when Vinod was having tea at a nearby shop he heard the shrill
sirens of police vans along with loud shouts of Athankavadi.
He heard people talking animatedly that the Parliament was being attacked
When he contacted
his office, the editor directed Vinod to reach the spot immediately
and interview as many MPs as possible. Vinod, who was just few meters
away from the Parliament, was one among the very few journalists to
reach the Parliament House while the firing was still on. After interviewing
around 80 MPs, Vinod came to his office and explained to the editor
some of the doubts that he had stumbled upon during his assignment.
Incidentally, the attack came at a time when the Parliament
was in turmoil over issues like the coffin case, the passing of POTA
Bill, etc. More importantly and rather curiously, even as the House
was being attacked, the ruling BJP MPs were rejoicing and
celebrating inside the Parliament. Even Parliamentary Affairs Minister
Pramod Mahajan stood unshaken by the events. Also, the police had initially
said the attack was carried out by six terrorists. But they could only
produce five dead bodies. Where is the sixth one?
to Vinod, the editor nonchalantly asked him to file instead a report
on the "traffic problems and the difficulties faced by the office-goers
in the city after the attack. Vinod was thus forced to throw his
findings acquired diligently during that eight-hour stint, into the
dustbin. The next day lead was the Delhi police chief Ajay Raj Sharmas
press briefings. Vinods report on the traffic diversions was also
published with prominence.
In a way, he was
learning new practical lessons about the social commitment of journalists
and the moral values of the Fourth Estate.
The four pillars
of knowledge that help journalism are: lies, blunders, money-making
and moral irresponsibility
In early 2002, Vinod
took charge as a reporter in South Asia for the New York-based Radio
Pacifica. Pacifica newscast was started by a group of journalists who
resigned from different media houses after they refused to report in
favor of the US governments decision to join the Second World
Just how September
11 is important to the US government, December 13 is an important date
in the Bushs calendar of terrorism. So dont miss the court
proceedings in your reportage Aaron Glantz, the producer of newscast,
told Vinod. This was an opportunity for him to follow the story closer.
attack case is a landmark in my life. More than as a journalist, I view
it from a humane perspective. The developments that occurred in the
country after December 13 corroborated my earlier doubts regarding the
attack which I stumbled upon on the first day. I had made up my mind
to divulge the real story behind December 13. The cases files
that run into tens of thousands of pages tell you more stories and sub-stories
which the police find embarrassing--like the first accused bringing
the main attacker from an army camp in Srinagar etc.
attack case was countrys first POTA case. This is an indication
as to why this draconian law was created. Every day I used to go to
the POTA trial court and learn the details of the case, though that
was not very necessary for my coverage. I learned Abdurahman Geelani,
Professor at the Delhi University, was not even remotely connected with
the attack. But the media portrayed him as a terrorist. The image of
a handcuffed Geelani standing in the dock disturbed me. Every day this
mans innocent face haunted me. I didnt know Geelani before
that. It became clear that if Geelani was not allowed for a fair trial
he would be hanged. Democratic India shall not convict innocent people.
I decided to join Nandita Haksar and two of Geelanis friends,
Kumar Sanjay Singh and Rona, who were beginning to do something. The
All India Defence Committee for Syed Abdurahman Geelani
was also formed in order to launch a media campaign to resist the media
trial on Geelani. From signature campaign, media releases, lobbying
with democratic organizations, public meetings, post card campaign...
It was also a three-year long practical lesson on Indian democracy for
me, recounts Vinod.
Even though the
case was such a sensational item for the Indian media, when the trial
was on at the Special POTA court, only three journalists were regularly
attending the proceedings. Apart from Vinod, there was Basharat Peer
from rediff.com and Anjali Modi from The Hindu. The rest of the media
folks were absolutely absent in the court and satisfied with the Delhi
The aim of
the media campaign was to make the journalists in the language press
aware about the true story and provide them enough materials. The worst
response was from Kerala. The media in Kerala refused to give any space
for Geelani case, and the campaign in defence of him. The editors from
the informed Kerala denied publishing anything about Geelani
in the name of national interest. An average Keralite holds a skewed
knowledge about nationalism. What is censured in the name of nationalism
is truth. The notions that Malayali possesses about North-East, Kashmir
or Punjab is so shameful to their claim of a well-informed
Kerala. Then I thought that there has to be a publication for Malayalis
political literacy, to resist the mounting disinformation, and to do
investigative stories he explains the beginning of the Free Press
venture. Many individuals came forward with support.
Within a matter
of two issues of the magazine, threats and attacks emerged from different
corners. The RSS workers destroyed the newsstand copies of Free Press
in Mayur Vihar area in Delhi. Even those people who couldnt read
Malayalam were disturbed at a magazine cover picture that showed the
smiling face of Geelani holding a cup of tea. The vendors were warned
against selling Free Press. Delhi distributors backed off. In Delhi
they had to distribute magazines through the Diaspora chips and bakery-items
distributors who had access to all the south Indian provision shops.
Free Press saw the
print orders steadily increasing after every month. Apart from Kerala
and other Indian metros they managed to find newsstands in cities like
Chandigarh, Jammu, Kanpur, Tezpur, Gwalior, Ahmedabad, Pune et al. It
reached in the Gulf countries as well which has a strong population
of Malayali Diaspora.
In their February
issue, Free Press carried a series of well documented case regarding
the twisted and deceitful ways in which the Ambanis had built the Reliance
industrial empire. It was also the story of black economy in India.
It revealed how politicians cutting across party affiliations had given
(and continues to give) covert and overt support to the corrupt ways
that helped create one of the largest business empires in the world,
Reliance. The magazine carried investigative reports on why a book on
Reliance, written by an Australian journalist Hamish McDonald, is
not available in India for the last 10 years. Titled Polyester
Prince, this book throws light on the shady affairs of Reliance Industries.
They also carried a list of 200 and odd shell companies owned by the
The Reliance issue
of Free Press sold like hot cakes with a sale of over one lakh copies.
The issue had to be reprinted after copies were sold out. The series
of reports, which no other media in the country had dared to publish,
raised the hackles of the powers-that-be. Even before the publication
of the shocking details on the death attempt against Geelani, the witch-hunt
against this magazine had started.
on Free Press was mounting. The readers letters to Free Press
were being monitored and blocked. An attempt on Vinods life took
place mid October, last year. When Vinod was going back to his office
on his bike an Ambassador car with its number plate covered followed
him and tried to ram him from behind. The supply of the magazine was
disrupted with many subscribers failing to get the magazine. A Free
Press sub-editor, V H Nishad, was dubbed a Muslim terrorist
and the building manager asked him to leave the place. When the magazines
special correspondent, V M Shaijith, wrote a report on the fake encounter
killings of Delhi police, the police started hounding him. When Vinod
was at his home in Keralas Wayanad district, the Kerala police
went there and advised him not to go back to Delhi. They also told the
locals that Vinod was involved in subversive activities
When we refused
to heed those threatening words to stop the publication of Free Press,
they started to disrupt the printing of the magazine. We were struggling
to find stability in printing. Presses in the capital gave us a tough
time. For printing the latest issue we had to go all the way from Delhi
to Meerut, says Vinod.
On March 31, police
officers from the Inter State Cell came to Free Press office and tore
away the covers of the magazine placed on the notice boards. They barged
into the editors room and took away an unopened courier addressed
to V H Nishad. The reason? The courier was addressed to a Muslim!
After two days,
the head of the Inter State Cell called up Vinod: Vinod, you are
a friend of Geelani and you know him better. You can help in Geelanis
murder attempt case. You will have something to say about those who
are targeting Geelani. So come to our office for a 15-minute discussion
During the course
of the conversation, Vinod raised doubts about the assassination attempt
against Geelani. He also raised doubts about the Delhi Special Cell
Commissioner Rajbir Singhs role in this regard. Rajbir Singh,
who has the dubious distinction of killing 26 persons in fake encounters,
had tried hard to entrap Geelani in the case.
discussion turned into a five-hour grilling. All through
the questioning, the police wanted to know why I had started this magazine
and why I did these problematic reports. They also asked
about the cover story on Reliance Industries, says Vinod.
Now the police made
it clear that they will not allow the printing of Free Press in any
of the presses in the capital. The presses have given up on the magazine
as frequent raids and harassment by the police is not good for their
arrangements are made for printing the magazine, we have decided to
stop the publication for the time being. As Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal
said during the inaugural function of Free Press, only the money of
those people with morality should be used to run a magazine. We are
not ready to plead before NGOs or corporate giants. Journalists working
in various media organizations who are supportive of the ideals of Free
Press have promised to contribute a portion of their salary for the
revival of the magazine, says the Free Press editor.
The fate of this
magazine reminds us that honest journalism is indeed injurious to health!
(Richard Keebils quote, Journalism is Injurious to Health was
the poster caption of Free Press magazine). But Vinod reiterates that
this alternative voice will never die down whatever be the hurdles on
its way. He is committed to uphold the magazines motto: Prathibadhatha
jangalotu mathram~ accountability, only to people. This courage
of dissidence is bound to surpass all kinds of obstacles. And all those
who believe in journalisms true values ought to wholeheartedly
support these young journalists and their fight for the cause of Free