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For A Free Press

By Nuiman

20 July, 2005
The Meantime

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

2001, 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 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 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?

After listening 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 Sharma’s press briefings. Vinod’s 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
-Marlene Brando

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 government’s decision to join the Second World War.

“Just how September 11 is important to the US government, December 13 is an important date in the Bush’s calendar of terrorism. So don’t 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.

“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 the first day. I had made up my mind to divulge the real story behind December 13. The case’s 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.”

“Parliament attack case was country’s 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 man’s innocent face haunted me. I didn’t 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 Geelani’s 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 and Anjali Modi from The Hindu. The rest of the media folks were absolutely absent in the court and satisfied with the Delhi police briefings.

“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 Malayali’s 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 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. 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 family.

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.

The surveillance on Free Press was mounting. The readers’ letters to Free Press were being monitored and blocked. An attempt on Vinod’s 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 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 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 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 Inter State 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 Commissioner Rajbir Singh’s 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.

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 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 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 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 Keebil’s 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 magazine’s 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 journalism’s true values ought to wholeheartedly support these young journalists and their fight for the cause of Free Press.











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