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Bengal: Eight Journalists Booked After Reporting on 'Cut Money' for Municipality Water Connection

As the reporters face arrest after reporting on possible corruption in the urban body, press freedom in the state has come under question.
Bengal: Eight Journalists Booked After Reporting on 'Cut Money' for Municipality Water Connection

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Kolkata: As many as eight reporters from Nadia district of West Bengal have been booked after an FIR was lodged against them based on a complaint by an executive officer of the Nabadwip Municipality. The journalists had reported on an alleged case of the municipality taking illegal “cut money” for providing water connections to residents.

“Our crime was reporting that Nabadwip municipality is charging Rs 3,000 as graft money for giving water connection in the municipal area. As a result, we have been booked under several provisions of the penal code for reporting the news,” said Souvik Banerjee, editor of ‘Janatar Chithi’, a newsweekly published from Nadia district. The sections used to book the journalists include criminal intimidation (section 506), obstructing public servants from discharging duties (section 186), and criminal conspiracy (120B).

Along with Souvik Banerjee, seven other reporters of Nadia have also been booked in the case. The complaint, filed by municipality official Pyari Mohan Sarkar, claims that the eight reporters defamed the municipality and incited people against it with the intention to cause a riot in collusion with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. 

In the complaint, which NewsClick has accessed, the municipality has maintained that the said Rs 3000 was taken from residents as an “operation and maintenance” fee for providing clean water connections to their houses. However, under the Rashtriya Jal Jiban Mission, the water connection is supposed to come free of charge to the residents. 

“The baseless claims that have been made include that we were inciting the common people against the chairman of the Nabadwip municipality and had even done miking in the area to incite people. While we adhered to the rulebook of making news, the municipality went on to lodge baseless allegations against us to harass us,” Banerjee told NewsClick.

According to the journalist, on December 23, 2022, a person named Dilip Adhikary was given a water connection by the municipality and then a sum of Rs 3000 was demanded from him; as he failed to pay the amount, five to six ‘hooligans’ allegedly severed the water connection to his house on December 31. 

Banerjee further said, “In Dilip Adhikary’s family, there are multiple patients, including ones having pacemakers in their hearts. However, the poor person’s request in this regard was not heeded. A team of reporters, about eight of them, came to know about what happened and visited his house to cover the incident. The ward councillor Parul Debnath was intimated about the matter and said that the issue lay with the chairman of the municipality, Trinamool Congress leader Bimankrishna Saha. Based on that, we tried to contact the chairman who said that this thing cannot be discussed on the phone and told us to meet him in person . When in the evening we managed to get hold of the chairman, he said that 'I won’t tell you anything, not speaking is my right'."

After the said incident aired on different news channels, the reporters returned to the area to follow up on the story when a local ruling party member, Ujjal Pal, allegedly accosted them. "The local residents were supportive of us, and we got many other leads from people who were forced to pay Rs 3000 as cut money for having the water connection in their houses. That evening we, along with our reporters' team, visited the local police station and met with Abhijit Chatterjee, local IC of the police station," Banerjee said. 

Then on January 3, 2023, the executive officer of Nabadwip Municipality filed a complaint to lodge an FIR against the eight journalists who went to cover the incident. 

"Using seven penal sections, a case was lodged against us and the case number is 6/23. The fact remains that we had neither done any miking nor were deliberately inciting anyone. We just reported the incident of cut money in government work," Banerjee claimed.

He added that so far, none of the reporters is absconding and all of them are staying at home. The police have given the reporters notice under Section 41 to appear before the IC of the police station for interrogation.

Banerjee also added that the incident showed the sad state of law and order in West Bengal, and the freedom of the press is under question.

NewsClick spoke with CPI(M) Central Committee member Sumit Dey, who said the whole exercise was grossly undemocratic. "Taking bribes for public work is grossly unfair, and any journalist reporting it is being booked under false cases. This shows the sad state of affairs in the Nabadwip area of Nadia District and more so in the state," Dey said.

Political commentator Anjan Bera said that press freedom is facing severe attack under the Trinamool Congress rule and the freedom of reporters is being curtailed. "If they want, they (the municipality) can go to court, but instead, they chose to lodge an FIR based on false claims about the reporters who were doing their duty. Reporters, with other stakeholders, should strongly condemn this incident," he told NewsClick.

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