Field Notes: No Questions Allowed

BETWA SHARMA

“You are a different journalist,” said Ajay Kumar, a senior superintendent of police in Uttar Pradesh, implying bias after I persisted with questions about social activist Javed Mohammad,  jailed by the Uttar Pradesh police after a protest in a Muslim neighbourhood of Prayagraj turned violent on 10 June.

My questions were about the claims that even though he and his daughter Afreen Fatima were critics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),  Mohammad was a bridge between the Muslim community and the local administration. And Mohammad had asked people not to gather for the protest against the derogatory remarks made by a BJP spokesperson against the Prophet Mohammad. 

SSP Kumar called him “double-faced” without explanation and terminated the interview. 

A day earlier, the district magistrate of Prayagraj, Sanjay Kumar Khatri, ended the interview after I asked a few questions about the case against Mohammad, with a similar refrain as Kumar. 

As both officials terminated the interviews within minutes, there was no opportunity to ask them why Mohammad’s house was demolished two days after the violence or about his family’s claim that he was at home on the day of the violence. Or about the evidence that places other social activists elsewhere. 

It occurred to me that the officials were unsettled by not just the questions but having a journalist question them, and even the slightest pushback was grounds for running down the reporter as biased. It would appear that challenging the official version of events has become a licence to suggest the reporter has an “agenda” antithetical to the public interest. 

While there are difficult public officials that one runs into while reporting, this hostility towards questioning is increasingly evident, with implications for journalists and their ability to keep people informed. In other words, if the official press release or conference is the final word, it leaves citizens vulnerable. 

The same week, I learnt what transpired when journalist Mohammad Sartaj Alam phoned Narendra Dayma, the city circle office of Bhilwara in Rajasthan, for a story about how ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ videos were being used to thwart Muslims contesting elections. Two such videos went viral in Jharkhand and Rajasthan. 

Taking exception to Sartaj calling him from Jharkhand for information, the circle officer in Rajasthan, in addition to telling him to send a local reporter, not only questioned his motives but displayed a deep distrust of the media. 

Pata nahin,  kon si aag lagane ke liye baat kar rahe ho, ya aag bujhane ki baat kar rahe ho (I don't know what fire you want to light and what fire you want to put out). I don't know you and your channel is not well known enough that I can talk to you," the circle officer said, Sartaj recalled. 

How could he be sure the information would not be used for a ‘Nupur-Sharma kind of debate’ was something else that Sartaj recalled the officer saying. (The officer was referring to the BJP leader’s derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammad and its furious coverage by the national news channels). Describing the officer’s manner as “aggressive”, Sartaj said, “It crossed all limits. It was very scary.” 

You can read Betwa Sharma’s full story here.

You can read Mohammad Sartaj Alam’s story here.

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