By Geeta Seshu
The visit of the French journalists has snowballed into a major issue in Tamil Nadu. Local BJP leaders have launched a campaign alleging espionage by the journalists. Wall posters came up accusing the Indian journalists of ‘spying’ and Tamil Nadu’s Minister of State for Finance and Shipping, Pon Radhakrishnan, told local media that the journalists had entered into the country via the sea to spy on the Kanyakumari port being built there!
Decrying the propaganda, the Alliance for Media Freedom, a coalition of media rights organisations in Tamil Nadu, held a press conference in Chennai on December 3, 2018. They condemned the misinformation being spread deliberately and the police action against the two Tamil journalists.
The French journalists had come to India as part of the Forbidden Stories project and were working on stories on environmental impact of soil erosion for French television. Forbidden Stories had been following up for some time on the reports on sandmining and its destruction of the coast, the attacks and threats on journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, who has been writing on the mining mafia.
The French journalists (Arthur Bouvart and Jules Giraudat) were aware that India’s highly restrictive visa regulations do not allow foreign journalists to enter India for journalistic purposes. They have denied the charge of espionage and clarified that the two local Indian journalists were not with them when the visited the IREL office, much less were they aware of the visit.
(See FreeSpeechCollecive’s report when the Tamil journalists were detained by the police).
Bouvart, who spoke to FreeSpeechCollective over the telephone from France, said, “We have been reading and following all that is happening and we are really concerned for the two journalists. What the police are saying about us is not true. We did not trespass. We entered through the main gate, we went through security, deposited our cellphones at the security and went to the Managing Director’s office. He told us that we do not have credentials to visit the place so we left immediately. We did not see anything or film anything,” he added.
“The priest who took us there had been telling us of the disruption in livelihood of the fisherfolk in his parish because of the sand mining. We also met villagers and fisherfolk who said their catch had reduced because of soil erosion,” Bouvart said, adding that it was a spur of the moment decision to visit the IREL office.
All these reports of the two journalists accompanying us is not true. And this report of espionage is a lie, Bouvart said, adding that he and his colleagues were following the situation very closely. “We have talked to the police several times and are answering all the questions”, Bouvart said.
Anand and Sriram, he said, were unaware that they had tourist visas and were only working as translators for them. “ They were not working on the story with us. They were not with us when we met the priest. Yes, we were aware that we had tourist visas and could not do any reporting. We know that. The rules in India are very strict and it is not easy for journalists to investigate any cases. But we had to apply for a tourist visa, knowing the risks involved,” he said.
Bouvart said that the idea of Forbidden Stories was to help journalists who are endangered. It closely monitored journalists who were endangered around the world. Asked to respond to criticism that their action had ended up endangering the Indian journalists, Bouvart said that, in fact, that it was the police who was doing that, not them! “The journalists were illegally detained and the charge of espionage is a lie. We gave the police our names and our press cards. They have our passport copies and we did not come by sea. All this is misinformation,” he said.
Bouvart said the duo were not aware the IREL premises were out of bounds. “We were not stopped at the security.There was no sign or anything. In fact, the only sign we saw was that cigarette and lighters were not allowed!”
Nevertheless, Bouvart and Giraudat, as well as Forbidden Stories, are determined to help the Indian journalists and ready to answer any questions by the police, he reiterated.
The statement issued by the Alliance for Media Freedom:
The Alliance for Media Freedom condemns the high-handed and illegal detention and harassment of two Tamil Nadu journalists by the Kanyakumari police on 28 and 29 November 2018. It also condemns the attempt of the Kanyakumari police, for reasons best known to itself, to peddle a false narrative on an issue involving media freedom.
Anandhakumar and M. Sriram, both journalists from Chennai, had visited Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts along with two accredited French investigative journalists. They did so without any monetary consideration and purely in the spirit of extending fraternal courtesy and facilitation to professional colleagues from a friendly country. Such facilitation on the ground is common in the world of journalism, as Indian journalists visiting foreign countries well know.
The two Indian journalists provided professional facilitation and assistance to two accredited French journalists in enquiring about illegal beach sand mining in the State and the consequent threats to the safety of journalists investigating and reporting on this. As is well known, the safety of journalists investigating crime and corruption, fort example in the mining sector, has become a major international issue, with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), and other public-spirited organisations investigating and engaging with the issue across the world, and the United Nations General Assembly establishing November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. It is a shocking fact that since 1992, 34 journalists have been murdered in India in connection with their work and that our country has figured in the CPJ’s Global Impunity Index every year since 2008, when CPJ began to publish the Index.
The two French journalists named in the case are Jules Giraudat, Deputy Editor of the Freedom Voices Network Team and an accredited member of the CCiJP (Commission de la Carte d’Identité des Journalistes Professionnels, the organisation authorised to issue identity cards for professional journalists in France: http://www.ccijp.net), and Arthur Bouvart, another investigative journalist who is part of the Freedom Voices Network Team.
According to the First Information Report (FIR) registered by the Kanyakumari police on the basis of a complaint received from Rajesh Raman Nair, Chief Manager (Security) of the Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) at Manavalakurichy, on the morning of 26 November 2018 the two French journalists, along with a local parish priest, Father Kildoss, met an official at the IREL. The complaint also mentions that “the Parish Priest along with the two foreign Nationals were involved in Videography in Beach mining areas and also had interviewed a few of the fishermen folk in Chinnavilai which comes under Govt. Property and photography/Videography is prohibited.”
IREL is the Central Government’s beach sand mining agency and comes under the purview of the Department of Atomic Energy. Its premises are a restricted area. Neither Anand nor Sriram was aware that the French journalists intended to visit IREL or that they had entered the premises. Nor did they have any part in the alleged photography/videography in the surrounding “Government property” mentioned in the complaint. The two Indian journalists were in their hotel rooms while the priest and the two French journalists reportedly met with IREL officials.
The two Indian journalists met with the French journalists only around 12.30 pm on that day and elsewhere in Kanyakumari district. It is only after the priest told them that the three of them (the priest and the two French journalists) had entered IREL that the Tamil Nadu journalists realised what had happened.
Anand’s explanation is that after a barrage of calls from unknown persons warning that their safety was at risk, they decided it was time to wind up and leave. The French journalists returned to Paris via Thiruvananthapuram and Mumbai. Anand, who accompanied the French journalists in a car, states that he got off en route to the Thiruvananthapuram airport, at the Thiruvananthapuram bus stand, to catch a bus and returned to Chennai in the early hours of 27 November 2018.
According to Anand, through the day on 27 November 2018 he as well as Sriram received calls from the Kanyakumari Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mr. Bhaskaran. He asked them to arrive in person by 28 November 2018 and said they could return to Chennai the same day after giving a statement. They were told that it was only an enquiry. The two Indian journalists departed from Chennai on the night of 27 November 2018 and arrived in Kanyakumari on the morning of 28 November 2018. They met DSP Bhaskaran at his office at 11am.
An enquiry took place with representatives of the Intelligence Bureau, State Intelligence, Q Branch, CID and other agencies present, and with the DSP as the investigating officer. In the midst of the enquiry, the French journalists made a video call via WhatsApp through Anand’s mobile phone and spoke to the DSP, explaining their credentials as accredited journalists. They also displayed their ID proofs to the police personnel, one of whom recorded the entire conversation on his mobile phone.
The questioning of Anand and Sriram went on for hours. They were then asked to write a statement and sign it. They complied. Around 3.00pm, they were taken to the Sun World Hotel, to Room number 412, and locked up – with their mobile phones taken away. They were brought back to the DSP’s office six hours later, that too only after a number of concerned journalists continually called the police asking why their colleagues had been illegally detained. Subsequently Anand and Sriram were taken to the Kanyakumari police station.
Following this, Sriram was allowed to go back to the Hotel after some time while Anand continued to be detained illegally at the Kanyakumari police station. He did not have access to his mobile phone.
Calls began pouring in from journalists across the country asking the DSP and the local Kanyakumari police as to why Anand was being detained illegally. Clearly concerned about this, the police returned Anand’s mobile phone to him around 1.30am and dropped him back at the Hotel around 3.00am where he and Sriram stayed the night – with four policemen sitting inside the room as they slept.
The next day, 29 November 2018, Anand and Sriram were taken again to the DSP’s office. There they were asked to sign summons stating that they would appear before the police for questioning on the same day at 2.00pm. Anand declined to sign the papers until a lawyer had vetted them. Only after D. Geetha, Advocate, intervened did the police finally release both journalists, with DSP Bhaskaran claiming that they were not in police custody. Anand and Sriram returned to Chennai around 10.00pm on the same night.
The detention of the two Indian journalists by the Kanyakumari police was in violation of the settled law – the set of “requirements to be followed in all cases of arrest or detention” mandated under pain of penalty by the Supreme Court of India in D. K. Basu v. State of West Bengal [Judges: Justices Kuldip Singh and A.S. Anand: Citation: (1997) 1 SCC 416].
Subsequently the Kanyakumari police, clearly acting under extra-legal pressure, and external vested interests have been busy spreading and planting false news insinuating that the French journalists were “spies” and that they received local assistance in their mission. The police officials have gone on record with a variety of contradictory versions. The fact that the two Tamil Nadu journalists were not with the French journalists when they entered the premises of IREL can be proved through incontrovertible evidence, which should be available in the CCTV footage of the Sun World Hotel and IREL.
The Alliance for Media Freedom calls upon the Kanyakumari Police to answer the following questions:
- Why were the two Tamil Nadu journalists illegally detained for two days?
- Why did the Kanyakumari police issue summons to the two Tamil Nadu journalists inside the DSP’s office after two days of detention? Was it not to cover up the illegality of the detention?
- Why did the Kanyakumari police insist that the Tamil Nadu journalists must not reveal to other agencies (IB, Intelligence, etc.) that the journalistic enquiry concerned illegal beach sand mining?
- What is the reason for the contradictory statements and versions planted by the Kanyakumari police in this case?
The Alliance for Media Freedom requests the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, Mr. T. K. Rajendran, to order a probe into the illegal detention of the two Tamil Nadu journalists by the Kanyakumari police and take action against those responsible for the illegalities.
The Alliance demands that the Kanyakumari police stop spreading false stories about the incidents and that it should act without prejudice and as per law in the case.
The Alliance is clear that the two Tamil Nadu journalists must and will continue to cooperate with the ongoing police investigation into the case.
Finally, the Alliance asks the Tamil Nadu Government to ensure that the freedom of the news media in the State is protected in letter and in spirit.