A fact-finding team constituted by the Editors Guild of India (EGI) to look into the reports of the Tripura government "using draconian laws to deter journalists and civil society activists from reporting on the communal violence in the state" has slammed the state police for its actions.
"The Tripura Police and the administration have displayed a lack of professionalism and integrity in dealing with the communal conflict and with those reporting on the issue," the report said.
The team members were independent journalist Bharat Bhushan, General Secretary of the Editors Guild of India, Sanjay Kapoor, and Editor of 'Imphal Review of Arts and Politics' Pradip Phanjoubam. The team visited Tripura from November 28 to December 1, 2021, and "met a cross-section of journalists, representatives of the state government, including the Chief Minister, ministers and the Director-General of Police, as well as civil society activists, to assess the state of media freedom in Tripura."
The communal violence in the state started as a retaliation for the anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh on October 15, when several Durga Puja pandals and temples were vandalised over an alleged desecration of the Quran. In Tripura, right-wing organisations, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), took out rallies and vandalised mosques, shops, and houses between October 21-29.
The fact-finding report mentions that "the communal incidents during Durga Puja in Bangladesh provided a perfect opportunity for right-wing religious organisations to polarise their cadre and voters along communal lines."
In its reaction to the reporting on the communal violence, the Tripura Police initially booked "102 social media account holders under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on criminal conspiracy and forgery charges." The Assam Police detained two Delhi-based reporters from HW News Network on behalf of the Tripura Police on November 14.
The report critically looked at the recent draconian assaults on media freedom and called into question the problematic relationship between the Tripura government and the local media in light of the official narrative that outsiders aligned with Trinamool Congress (TMC) spread lies around communal violence in the state. The report held that the government in Tripura was prompt in denying or tightening the tap on government advertisements to a media platform. The ones that were critical were denied ads. And if the denial of ads did not lead to changing their ways, then goons were used to beat up critical journalists."
"Phone calls go from the Chief Minister's office to TV channels with officials threatening them if they invite guests who are critical of the government. They also have lists of guests who are approved by them and who they would like to see in TV debates and discussions," an activist informed the fact-finding team.
Chief Minister Biplab Deb is reportedly using a carrot and stick policy to control the local media. "The carrot was the monitory incentives that the government claimed they were extending to the media, and the stick was the threat of FIRs, including charging them under UAPA, which gives the police not only the power to arrest but also to award severe penalties without the arbitration of the judiciary," the report stated, adding that the casual usage of UAPA by the state police for mere tweets "was scary".
In its conclusion, the fact-finding report slammed the Tripura Police and the administration for displaying a lack of professionalism and integrity in dealing with the communal conflict and with those reporting on the issue. The report held the police and administration are "complicit in the growth of muscular majoritarianism that subverts democratic institutions."
"Grand conspiracy theories have been cooked up to show how independent journalism that exposes communal violence and the rise of Hindu majoritarianism is an attempt by the enemies of the state to undermine a democratically elected government. Hence, reporting and Tweeting -- law enforcement agencies claim -- about the violence in that state is a criminal act. This is the reason why the police and the ruling party faithful see a design in the tweets and expectedly drag neighbouring Pakistan as being responsible for this exposure of social instability in Tripura when they dramatically confide in you -- one tweet is even from Pakistan," the report said.