On April 23 morning, M Balaji — a photojournalist from Coimbatore-based news portal Simplicity — received a call. He was at the Collectorate, after finishing an assignment. The caller, who did not introduce him, asked whether it was Suresh (name changed) on the other end. Suresh was Balaji’s colleague. Later, the caller said he was the sub-inspector at the Variety Hall police station in the city.
“The SI said he wanted to inquire me regarding a complaint from a woman that I had been giving missed calls to her,” says Balaji. “As I did not do anything of that sort, I kept asking the SI whom did he want and he repeatedly asked me whether I was Suresh. I told him he had dialled a wrong number and I could not come to the station.” But the policeman had asked Balaji to visit the station for a normal inquiry, the photojournalist recalls.
With another colleague, Balaji went to the station. To his shock, police personnel there took his office identity card and began to question him about the nature of his work ‘casually’. “When I told the police I had to drop my friend, they took my bike keys too,” he says. While Balaji was staying at the station, the police dropped his friend at the Collectorate.
Then, the police questioned Balaji about his colleagues and asked him to call Jerald, a reporter from Simplicity. “When I sought an explanation from the police, they did not respond. I immediately phoned Jerald and asked him to come to the station,” Balaji says. Jerald, along with his brother, was purchasing groceries for migrant workers, about whom he had done a story lately.
Assuming that the call must be regarding assignments, Jerald picked only to hear the panic-stricken voice of Balaji, asking him to come to the station. “Balaji was clueless about why the police had called him to the station,” says Jerald. Within a few minutes, Jerald and his brother arrived at the station, with a bag full of groceries.
After having a short conversation with Balaji and Jerald, the police detained them. As he found something suspicious, Jerald asked his brother to return home and take care of their mother. I knew the news would spread soon and it would panic her,” says Jerald. But the duo continued to ask the police a reason for their detention. They replied that certain things could not be discussed with them and asked them to call their employer.
The founder of Simplicity, Andrew Sam, was reportedly a little far and said he would be there in some time. “However, when we conveyed the same to the police, they seized our mobile phones and took us to RS Puram station in their jeep,” says Jerald. When the journalists said they would come in their vehicles, the police did not allow, he says.
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At the RS Puram station, the police kept Balaji and Jerald in a separate room, guarded by two constables. “Even if we had to go to the washroom, the constables would accompany us,” says Balaji. Jerald was worried about his mother and the migrants workers. “There are 20 families of migrant labourers in Rathinapuri who had no ration cards.
“As I visited them for a story, I decided to buy them groceries for a week with the little money I could get from my friends,” says Jerald. He had assured the families of providing them with the groceries by April 23 evening. “So, I was wondering how could I deliver them the items and what would they do for food the next day, says Jerald.
With the sequence of events seeming to lead to an arrest, the journalists lost hope of returning home. “Even when I went to the washroom, the police asked me not to make eye contact with the reporters waiting outside,” Balaji says. He was worried about his parents, who stay about 50 km away from the Coimbatore city.
“I am a native of a village near Anaimalai [in Coimbatore district] and the people there are little aware of the police proceedings. My parents hardly know anything about my job and would panic if they came to know of the detention,” says Balaji. “We did not do anything illegal. The police action has created a panic among the people about the profession.”
Only late evening did Jerald and Balaji heave a sigh of relief after a few lawyers spoke to them. Later, Andrew Sam arrived at the station and the police questioned him of news reports about the pathetic condition of the healthcare professionals in the city and alleged involvement of PDS staff in corruption. After the interrogation, Sam was arrested and sent to jail. The two Journalists were released.
“We were neither summoned for an inquiry, nor were not given any reason for the detention even after our release,” says Balaji. While leaving the station, Balaji asked Sub-Inspector Sivakumar why did he not give any reason on the phone call. “If I had told you the reason, you would not have come to the station,” the SI had told Balaji.
Only late at night, all journalists in Coimbatore, including Balaji and Jerald, came to know the reason for the detention and the subsequent arrest, after the FIR copy was circulated on WhatsApp. Journalists’ forums in Coimbatore and Chennai have condemned the ‘illegal’ detention of the journalists and the arrest of Sam. On Friday (April 24), DMK president MK Stalin and AMMK leader TTV Dhinakaran condemned the act of the police.
Reacting to the incident, State Minister for Information and Publicity Kadambur Raju says it would be nice if organisations publish news about what the government does and create awareness about COVID-19. “I am not specifying the incident, but saying generally,” he says. “Even if they are politically biased, we don’t mind. But there is nothing if they are publishing about what the government has to do.”
Claiming that he was not aware of the arrest and the detention, Raju says he will look into the matter and take appropriate action.