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Newsmen left to their own devices

Chennai, Nov. 3: The Justice K.S. Bakthavatsalam Commission probing the violence during a DMK rally in August last year has ruled out framing any guidelines to ensure protection to mediapersons while covering such demonstrations.

Several journalists were caught in the crossfire between the police and DMK activists protesting against the midnight arrest of party chief M. Karunanidhi.

Justifying the police firing on the protesters near the office of the director general of police (DGP), the commission in its report said it could not come to any “definite conclusion” regarding the attack on journalists in the absence of any material or evidence apart from the video clippings beamed on Sun TV.

The report was submitted on the last day of the Tamil Nadu Assembly. One of the terms of reference for the inquiry commission was to suggest norms and guidelines to be followed by journalists.

But this clause raised a storm among mediapersons with some of them even moving Madras High Court. They questioned the reference and demanded a CBI probe. However, the plea was dismissed.

Seven journalists who had been attacked during the violence or had lost their camera or any other equipment that day preferred independent complaints with the police. But the commission noted that it had received letters from three journalist unions “politely stating” that they did not want to appear before the panel in view of their petition in the high court.

Justice Bakthavatsalam said that though it was true that freedom of the press should not be curbed, “at the same time, when they complain that they were attacked brutally by police or rowdies, in all fairness, they ought to have appeared before this commission and let in evidence to arrive at a right conclusion. As such, I have to leave the question open.”

If any guidelines are framed, “the press may think that their freedom is (being) curbed”, he added, suggesting that the police hold a press conference before such rallies and “decide the modality of how to cover the news”.

The probe panel said when the police action took place, the journalists should have taken “stock of the situation” and used “their discretion”.

“It is too much on the part of the press to think that nothing will happen to them or to their equipment if they go into a surging crowd when police action is (being) taken,” it said.

The media “should keep a reasonable distance so that they do not get injured,” Justice Bakthavatsalam observed.

On the Press Council of India’s independent probe into the attack and the question of journalists’ security, the judge noted that “it is not right on the part of this commission to consider the statements made by the former Chennai commissioner, Muthukaruppan, before its committee.”

Justice Bakthavatsalam said he had heard the audio tape but found that it was not recorded on oath. “It sounds to me like a discussion and in many portions, the former commissioner of police says ‘off the record’, but unfortunately, it can be heard.”

Former DGP Ravnidranath’s statements before the Press Council committee could not be ignored, but later, the counsel for both parties accepted that they did not want to rely on the tape, the Justice Bakthavatsalam Commission said in its finding.

The commission rejected the police counsel’s argument that after Sun TV’s repeated broadcast of Karunanidhi’s arrest, the procession was taken out only to create a law and order problem for the ADMK government with the intention of getting the Centre to intervene and invoke Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the state government.

As for the main terms of reference, the incidents of violence and the reasons behind them, the commission held that there was enough evidence to show that between 7 pm and 7.15 pm, a section of the protesters did disturb public peace while walking past the DGP’s office.

They tried to enter the DGP’s office complex forcibly. Some of them set fire to the vehicle parked inside and “could have set ablaze the DGP’s office itself”. The police then had no option but to use force after due warning, the commission said.

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