Chhattisgarh moves closer to journalist protection law, releases draft

Dipankar Ghose
The draft has drawn flak from activists, who pointed out that control over action under the law still largely remains with the local administration, which is often behind the threats to journalists.(Representational Image)

A committee set up by the Chhattisgarh government in February to finalise a law for the protection of journalists is set to begin its three-day visit to the state on November 16 to take suggestions on board. The committee headed by Justice Aftab Alam, a retired Supreme Court judge, has prepared a draft of the Chhattisgarh Protection of Mediapersons Act that has now been made public for suggestions.

However, the draft has drawn flak from activists, who pointed out that control over action under the law still largely remains with the local administration, which is often behind the threats to journalists.

The committee includes Justice Aftab Alam, Justice Anjana Prakash, a retired judge of the Patna High Court, senior Supreme Court advocate Rajuram Chandran, Advocate General of Chhattisgarh High Court, DGP, Principal Secretary (Law Department), Chief Minister's Media Advisor Ruchir Garg, Dainik Deshbandhu Chief Editor Lalit Surjan and Nagpur-based senior journalist Prakash Dubey as members.


Why the law is being drafted

In Chhattisgarh, especially in Bastar, journalists have often claimed to have been targeted by the government machinery, intimated, harassed and unlawfully arrested. For the last few years, local journalists have rallied around the demand for a journalist protection law.

A senior government official said, "Discussions will be held in Raipur, Bastar and Ambikapur. The meetings have been set up in a way that there is time for journalists and journalist unions as well as common people separately. These suggestions will then be considered by the committee."

The draft envisages a "Register of Mediapersons" for which an "Authority for the Registration of Mediapersons" will be set up, including senior journalists and officials of the Department of Public Relations.

The draft suggests the creation of a Committee for Protection of Mediapersons within 30 days of the Act coming into force. It is in the ambit of this committee to "deal with complaints of harassment, intimidation or violence, or unfair prosecution and arrests of mediapersons". According to the draft, the committee will include a police officer not below the rank of the Additional DGP, Head of the Department of Public Relations, three mediapersons "of at least 12 years' standing, at least one of whom shall be a woman, who qualify to be registered under this Act".

Under the committee, "risk management units" will be set up at the district level comprising the District Collector, district DPR officer, SP and two mediapersons from the district, at least one of whom will be a woman. The draft makes it a duty of each member of risk management units to immediately inform the Collector or SP about any "complaint or information of threat or harassment, intimidation or violence to persons in need of protection", according to the draft. The SP or District Collector will have to immediately institute emergency protection measures and convene the risk management unit, it says.

Alok Shukla, convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan that has been at the forefront of demands for such a law, said, "The current form of the draft seems to concentrate on the registration of mediapersons instead of their protection. The composition of the risk management unit is five people, three of whom are the SP, Collector and from the DPR, who pick the remaining two journalists. Journalists often face harassment from the police or the administration. How will this committee act independently? This is fundamentally flawed."

The draft states that the committee and the risk management unit may call for further information from the source of the complaint or from other sources to assess the level of risk and the appropriate response. It states that the risk management unit shall formulate a protection plan to safeguard such persons if it considers the need for protection measures.

The draft also says that public servants who "wilfully neglect duties" under the Act could be given a jail term upto one year. "Offences under this Act shall be investigated by a police officer not below the rank of a Deputy Superintendent of Police. Offences under this Act shall be cognizable and bailable," the draft states.