In Bengal, Journo’s 4-Year-Old Child Wonders if Parents Are Dead
As Mamata Banerjee rues death of journalist in Uttar Pradesh, journalists in her own state cry hypocrisy.
Four-year-old Arshad's life has not been the same for a month now, says his uncle Mofijul Islam, who lives in Kolkata.
Arshad and his eight-year-old sister Arsiya have been staying with Mofijul since the night of 29 June, when their parents, Sheikh Safiqul Islam and Alima Khatun, were arrested by the West Bengal police.
Safiqul is a journalist who runs a news channel called Arambagh TV on Youtube. He has five criminal cases against him for various stories he had done in and around the town of Arambagh (where he resides), in the Hooghly district of West Bengal.
The arrest on 29 June was pertaining to a case of extortion filed against Safiqul. Along with the couple, Suraj Ali Khan, a reporter at Arambagh TV was also arrested.
Less than a month since the three were arrested, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, at her party's annual Shahid Diwas rally on 21 July (which had to go digital this year) attacked the BJP governments in the Centre, and states like Uttar Pradesh, for creating an "atmosphere of fear" by suppressing voices of many, including journalists.
Just the day after, she tweeted this regarding slain Uttar Pradesh journalist Vikram Joshi.
The Chief Minister's own record in upholding freedom of the press, however, has been questioned multiple times in the recent past as stories like that of Safiqul's came to the fore.
'Are Our Parents Dead? Why Haven't They Called Us?'
On the night of 29 June, Safiqul and his wife Alima were picked by police and "local goons", claims his family.
"They came in the wee hours of the morning and destroyed their house. The couple as well as their two children were picked up and taken to the police station. All the equipment and computers they used for the channel was also picked up", says Mofijul, Shafiqul's brother.
The case of extortion was the fifth such case against Shafiqul and Arambagh TV. Mofijul claims that police harassment started when on 13 April, Arambagh TV put up a video that showed members of local clubs lined outside the Arambagh police station to collect cheques of 1 lakh rupees that had been issued by the state government to the clubs, as a part of a grant given every three years.
This distribution was happening in the middle of the lockdown, after sunset.
The headline of the video, in Bengali, read: "57 Clubs Under Arambagh Police Station Are Receiving Grants of 1 Lakh Rupees. Will They Stand By The People At This Hour?"
The channel also published a follow-up report saying that many of the clubs which received the grants weren't even in existence. Both stories went viral in the local circles.
An FIR was filed on 28 April that said that Arambagh TV intended to "malign the reputation" of the police station.
The Calcutta High Court, on 2 July, said that in the case of this specific FIR, no arrest can be made till a further hearing.
However, Islam's 29 June arrest was pertaining to another case, that of extortion, which his family claims is fabricated and an act of persecution for the April report as well as reports on misappropriation of funds after Cyclone Amphan in May that the channel ran.
The family further claims that the case was filed the midnight before the arrest by a person close to the Trinamool Congress. As the police and other goons broke into the house in the wee hours of the morning, the kids heard them say that they will shoot their parents, says Mofijul.
“They now ask if their parents are dead. If they have not been shot, why haven’t they called us yet, they ask. It’s a trauma they can’t come out of”, he says.
While Safiqul is at the Arambagh jail, Alima is lodged at the Burdwan jail, about 45 kilometres from Arambagh.
The children have not met their parents since the arrest and have been in Kolkata with Mofijul and their grandparents after the family picked them up from the police station.
The trauma is also real for Suraj Ali Khan's three-year-old son. His wife, Nadiha Begum, says that the reporter and cameraperson who worked with Safiqul was picked up in front of his son as well.
"The day after he was picked up, two vans of police personnel landed at our house at 1 am. They vandalised my house in the name of an investigation. We couldn't stay in that house anymore. We had to flee Arambagh", Nadiha tells The Quint.
"My son can't get it out of his head that the police took his father", she adds.
Safiqul, Alima and Suraj remain in police custody. Their bail pleas have been dismissed once. The family claims that court hearings keep getting postponed due to the lockdown.
'Digital Platforms The New State Enemy'
With most in the print and electronic media bowing to the state government, digital platforms are now on the government's radar, says Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor at Jadavpur University who now runs an outfit called 'Akranto Aamra' or 'We, The Attacked'. It is a social group that works towards upholding civil liberties in the state and is seen to be Left-aligned.
"Since the Mamata Banerjee government came to power for the second time, in 2016, the traditional media is under the tight control of the government. Therefore social media platforms are the only source of independent news in West Bengal. Arambagh TV is one such channel", Mahapatra told The Quint.
Mahapatra's run-in with the state government in 2012, is till date, criticised as the Mamata government's most extreme action against freedom of speech in the state.
The professor was publicly beaten and then arrested for circulating a cartoon lampooning the Chief Minister on e-mail. The case against him continues in court.
"In 2019, the government had done the same with the Youtube channel run by Sanmoy Banerjee. It followed exactly the same pattern that my case followed", Mahapatra says.
Sanmoy Banerjee, a Congress leader who runs a popular Youtube channel called 'Banglar Barta' was arrested in October 2019 for a piece critical of the Banerjee and her nephew and Trinamool leader, Abhishek Banerjee.
“I was never sent a notice or anything of that sort. Suddenly one night, I was picked up and taken to the Khardah police station. Once there, they took me a room, shut the door and I was subjected to endless slaps and punches”, Banerjee says.
After nine hours of physical and verbal abuse, a heavily injured Banerjee was put in a police car and was told that he was being taken to the Purulia district, over 280 kilometres away. The complaint against Banerjee had been filed in Purulia.
He claims that the police who interrogated him in Purulia asked him to assure them that he will not put out any political content in the future.
"In a Bengal where the situation is such, the Chief Minister of such a state cannot question the happenings in Uttar Pradesh", Banerjee says.
The Chief Minister has also, in recent times, faced flak for blacking out a local cable news channel.
"What happened to me in 2012 is also happening now. The only difference is that then the media and the public stood up to it and it was talked about. Now these incidents are being brushed under the carpet and those persecuted have very little scope to seek justice", says Mahapatra.
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