The Guwahati Press Club (GPC) has written to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) after the agency had summoned a Guwahati-based journalist to question him on his role in the anti-CAA movement in Assam and his relationship with peasant leader Akhil Gogoi who was arrested by the NIA a few months ago.
“We are deeply concerned about the recent developments. Here, we would also like to reassert the significance of freedom of speech and journalists’ right to do their duties without fear or favour,” GPC general secretary Sanjoy Ray said in the letter that was forwarded to the CBI and Assam Police.
On May 15, the NIA quizzed Manash Jyoti Baruah, who works with Mirror of Assam — a digital media organisation in Guwahati, for about five hours after summoning him allegedly without issuing a formal notice. The inquiry was in connection with a case against anti-CAA activist Akhil Gogoi and his alleged links with the Maoists.
The GPC expressed its concern at the way journalists were being questioned without getting formal notices. “What has struck us in the entire episode is the manner in which some of these journalists were asked to appear before the investigation agency,” Ray said.
“In some of the recent cases, investigators had summoned journalists without even serving them formal notices. While some were asked to appear over a phone call, others were merely sent a text message,” Ray added. He said, “In such cases, it is difficult to ascertain for us and the journalist concerned whether he or she has been asked to appear as an accused, witness or anything else.”
“Experts, with whom we got in touch to get the legal perspective on the matter, suggested that it is the right of the person summoned to be served a formal notice. Under such circumstances, we urge you to look into the matter and pass necessary instructions so that the laid down norms are adhered to, and there remains no scope for ambiguity”.
However, Ray said the GPC understood well the responsibility of journalists as law-abiding citizens to cooperate with investigation agencies in whatever way they could.
“In this regard, let me also place on record the fact that there had been quite a few instances when journalists had assisted law enforcers in bringing some cases of serious nature to their logical conclusion,” he said.
“We are also aware of the fact that to make the country free from criminal and anti-social elements, we need to work in tandem with the law enforcers to the extent possible,” Ray mentioned in the letter, which was also mailed to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
This is probably the first time that a major press club has written to the investigative agency against the increasing trend of arrests and the levelling of charges against journalists. Many other journalists had also been summoned by the police and security agencies for questioning the state.
Baruah, who was with News18 Assam/Northeast network when the anti-CAA protests took place in Assam, said he was shocked at the development.
“As journalists, we need to speak to many people including security personnel and politicians. But how can I be summoned and quizzed on why I spoke to a certain individual. Like many of my fellow journalists and friends, I also spoke to him. My job is to get the information. This is ridiculous, but I’m terrified at the same time. If this trend continues, democracy will be under threat,” Baruah told The Federal.
Akhil and several of his associates were arrested in December after the protest against CAA turned violent in Guwahati and some other places. At least five persons were killed in police firing and during the protests. Akhil, who was accused of having links with the Maoists, was granted bail in the case but was re-arrested in another case. He is still under judicial custody.
Akhil has been vocal against the BJP government on several issues, including the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which endorses citizenship to minority migrants from the neighbouring countries.
In neighbouring Manipur, journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was put behind the bars for several months under the National Security Act (NSA) after he uploaded a video on social media, criticising the BJP-led state government. Wangkhem was arrested under IPC sections 294, 500 and 124 A, which deals with sedition.