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For A Free Press

By Nuiman

20 July, 2005

You will never fail until you abandon your endeavours…
-Abraham Lincoln

2001, December 13: Vinod K Jose, a reporter with The Indian Express Delhi bureau, was assigned to cover the farmers’ agitation in front of the Parliament. Since Vinod was a Keralite, the 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 sounds of firing and the shrill sirens of police vans along with loud shouts of “Athankavadi”. When he came out, he heard people talking animatedly that the Parliament was being attacked by terrorists.

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 metres away from the Parliament, was one among the very few journalists to reach the Parliament House just after the attack. After interviewing around 80 MPs within and outside the Parliament, 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?

After listening to Vinod’s findings, the editor nonchalantly asked him to file instead a report on the "traffic problems and the kind of difficulties faced by the officer-goers in the city as a result of the Parliament attack”. Vinod was thus forced to throw his startling findings acquired diligently during that eight-hour stint, into the dustbin. The lead news of The Indian Express the next day was the Delhi police chief Ajayraj Sharma’s press meet about the Parliament attack. Vinod’s report on the traffic problems was also published with prominence.

Vinod couldn’t write anything in The Indian Express about what he saw and heard in the Parliament precincts during the ‘attack’. 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
-Marlene Brando

In 2002 February, Vinod took charge as the South Asian Bureau Chief of the New York-based Radio Pacifica, which was formed by a group of journalists who had resigned from different newspapers after they refused to write in favour of the US government’s decision to join the First World War.

“Just how September 11 is important to the US government, December 11 is equally important for India. So follow December 13 carefully,” the editor of Radio Pacifica told Vinod. These word’s strengthened Vinod’s morale as he found himself working for an institution that believes in true journalistic values and ethics.

“The Parliament 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 that day. I had made up my mind to divulge the real story behind December 13. Just go through the case’s files that run into tens of thousands of pages, and you will get the truth. Actually, the first case under POTA was filed in the Parliament attack case. This is an indication as to why and what for this draconian law was created. Every day I used to go to the POTA trial court and learn the minute details of the case. Abdurahman Geelani, Professor at the Delhi University, was not even remotely connected with the attack. But all of the media celebrated by portraying him as a terrorist. The image of a handcuffed Geelani standing in the dock disturbed me. Every day this man’s innocent face haunted me. I didn’t know Geelani before that. When it became clear that Geelani was going to be hanged, I thought of doing something. With the help of Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist Nandita Haskar, we formed a Defence Committee for Geelani. We filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court against the POTA trial court’s verdict, and this culminated in the exoneration of Geelani,” recounts Vinod.

Even though the case was such a sensational item for the Indian media, when the trial was on at the POTA court, only three Indian journalists were regularly attending the proceedings. Apart from Vinod, there were Basharat Peer from and Anjali Modi from The Hindu. The rest of the Indian media folks were absolutely absent and echoing the version of the Delhi police. And it’s their version the readers had to believe. The “All India Defence Committee for Syed Abdurahman Geelani” was also formed in order to launch a media campaign that would dispel all the distortions of the mainstream media regarding the Geelani case. Vinod was in charge of campaigns in Punjab, Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. It was the experiences during the campaign that led Vinod into thinking about starting a new magazine in Malayalam.

“The aim of the media campaign was to make the journalists in the language press aware about the realities and provide them enough materials. The response from all the states except Kerala was very positive. The media in Kerala refused to give space for the publication of the real happenings that led to the arrest of Geelani. An average Keralite holds a skewed knowledge about national politics. The notions that he possesses about the North-East, Kashmir or Punjab are such that they would put even an average illiterate villager to shame. Then I thought that there has to be a publication for the sake of the Malayali’s political literacy,” he explains the beginning of the Free Press venture.

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. Even those people who couldn’t 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. There were people who had made it a point that people should not get to know even the tiniest true bit about Geelani.

In a previous issue, Free Press carried startling revelations regarding the twisted and deceitful ways in which the Ambanis had built the Reliance industrial empire. 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. The magazine carried investigative reports on why a book on Reliance, written by an Australian journalist Hamish McDonald, has been banned in India for the last 10 years. Titled Polyester Prince, this book throws light on the shady affairs of Reliance Industries.

This particular issue of Free Press sold like hot cakes in and outside India with a sale of over one lakh copies. The issue had to be reprinted following demands from the readers. The series of reports, which no other media in this country had dared to publish, raised the hackles of the powers-that-be. So even before the publication of the shocking details on the death attempt against Geelani, the witch-hunt against this magazine had started.

An alleged attempt on Vinod’s life too took place four days before they tried to finish off Geelani. When Vinod was going back to his office on his bike after visiting the house of Nandita Haskar, an Ambassador car with its number plates covered followed him and tried to ram him from behind. The readers’ letters to Free Press were also being monitored and blocked. 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 his house owner asked him to leave the place. When the magazine’s 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 Kerala’s 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” in Delhi.

“When we refused to heed those placating and threatening words to stop the publication of Free Press, they started to disrupt the printing of the magazine. It was the Special Cell of the Delhi police that engineered the whole operation against the magazine. The press, where the magazine was printed for about one year, refused to print Free Press anymore in view of the threats from the Delhi police. 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 Delhi Interstate Police Cell came to the office of Free Press and tore away the covers of the magazine placed on the notice boards. They barged into the editor’s 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 Interstate Cell called up Vinod: “Vinod, you are a friend of Geelani and you know him better. You can help in Geelani’s 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 on this.”

During the course of the conversation, Vinod raised doubts about the assassination attempt against Geelani. He also raised doubts about the Delhi Special Cell Assistant Commissioner Gajbir Singh’s role in this regard. Gajbir Singh, who has the dubious distinction of killing 26 persons in fake encounters, had tried hard to entrap Geelani in the case.

The “15-minute 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 Special Cell of Delhi police has informed that they will not allow the printing of Free Press in any of the presses in the country’s capital. The printing press people have given up on the magazine as frequent raids and harassment by the police is not good for business.

“Until alternative 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 certain NGOs or corporate giants. Journalists working in various media organisations 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 truly alternative magazine reminds us that honest journalism is indeed injurious to health. But Vinod reiterates that this alternative voice will never die down whatever be the hurdles on its way. He is committed to uphold the magazine’s motto: “commitment only to the people”. This courage of dissidence is bound to surpass all kinds of obstacles, asserts Vinod. And all those who believe in journalism’s true values ought to wholeheartedly support him and fight for the cause of Free Press.











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