Journalism in Goa

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

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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