Video Volunteers: Citizen Journalism and Security

“I was punished for communicating"

- Mumia Abu-Jamal

A Community Correspondent has to face and overcome many obstacles on the way to produce his/her video and later, to use the video to bring about social change. First, they overcome the fear of the camera, while in front of it and while standing behind. In articulating their issues and concerns to the world, the correspondents and their communities speak out in resistance to years of oppression and silence. In bringing about social change, they struggle against an apathetic system desperately holding on to the 'status quo'.

Every IndiaUnheard Video produced is a testament of the courage of the correspondent and the community.

In the past 2 years, Video Volunteers' IndiaUnheard program has created 45 instates of documented social change. Schools have been opened, some re-opened, corruption has ended, equality of wages for women was achieved, people began to receive regular rations, government schemes were executed, pregnant women and children began receiving healthcare, polluting factories have been shut down.

But like they say - you can't get to 45 impacts, without making a few enemies.

Our network of Community Correspondents while working in their respective regions across the country, occasionally come under threat. The first year of IndiaUnheard saw little of these threats. But as we moved into more marginalized regions, conflict zones and intensified our focus on social change, we have started giving greater thought to the security of our Community Correspondents.

For all you aspiring citizen journalists, activists and all concerned, we discuss below a few instances in which the security of our correspondents were compromised this year. And the steps we have taken to successfully ensure that they remained safe.

Case 1.

On the 13th of May, 2012 at around 11 am in the morning, our correspondent Anand Pagare was covering the corruption among the traffic police officers in Malegaon town during which he was assaulted by them. Five traffic police officers attacked him, seized his camera, deleted the footage, confiscated the memory card and batteries and threw the camera on the street. They accused him of fabricating the news and threatened to end his career if he continued to make videos. When he attempted to remind the officers of their responsibility, they told him that they were not bound by duty to the citizens or the constitution. They told him that they themselves had paid bribes for their jobs to politicians and higher officers and hence they considered themselves above the law.

Video Volunteers' response: Anand was extremely proactive and strategic on the field. He met with the local journalist’s network who rallied their support behind him. He went to the police headquarters at Nasik to file a complaint where they promised to redress the situation, get the offending officers to write a letter of apology, get them to return his memory card and batteries and also, Rs.1000/- as compensation for the damaged camera.

Video Volunteers' circulated an open letter addressing the incident. The letter was sent to the email addresses of the Chief Minister, District Collector, Director General of Police and the Superintendent of Police. Anand was also introduced by Video Volunteers to Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), our partners and friends who collaborate with us on our legal matters.

Sending open letters to the higher officials got a surprisingly quick response. Someone up there had ordered an inquiry into the incident. We were informed of the matter when the police returned Anand's equipment back to him and began apologizing in a manner most profuse.

Since then, it has been Anand's call, all the way. Till date, if he crosses path with any of the police officers, he accepts and returns their greetings but turns down their offers for tea.

Case 2.

On 9th January 2011, a group of ten women led by a veteran activist and Community Correspondent Varsha Jawalgekar were held in a locked room, without their consent, for over 40 minutes by the teachers of a government primary school in rural Bihar. The women were holding a peaceful protest rally against the negligence with which the school was being run. They had entered the school building to negotiate their demands of improving the standard of education and care of the students with the head master.

Not only did the head master refuse to negotiate with the delegation, he rudely asked Varsha to leave the school building at once. When Varsha refused to move, the teachers threatened her and forcibly locked the delegation inside the room.

Video Volunteer's response: On hearing of Varsha's house arrest, Video Volunteers' alerted all their activist friends in the region and Community Correspondent across the country. They were given clear instructions to keep dialing Varsha's cell phone. It was a strategy that conveyed a message to the oppressors that they are being watched and that Varsha is not alone and many, many people out there are looking out for her.

We were constantly in contact with Varsha throughout the incident. We had prepared press releases and faxes to be sent out the moment she gave us the green flag. After an hour or two of the showdown, Varsha and the women were let free. A meeting was called with the teachers and a decision was collectively taken that the teachers and administration of the school with be accountable to a council of concerned parents. The quality of education has since improved.

Case 3.

In early May, 2012, our correspondent Mukesh Rajak received news of massive corruption and the embezzling of money sanctioned under the MGNREGA scheme. He filed an RTI asking information on the number of projects sanctioned to Ms. Vandana Kumari, Rojgar Sevak of Madhupur and how many had been reported complete and also asked for the budget sanctioned to her under the projects. On the 12th of May 2012, Ms. Kumari filed an FIR with the police accusing Mukesh of blackmail and assault.

Video Volunteers' response: Video Volunteers contacted HRLN and they assigned a lawyer to Mukesh's case. We asked Mukesh to move to a secure location a little away from his home. We immediately moved to file an anticipatory bail.

Video Volunteers got in touch with Committee to Protect Journalists. They took immediate interest in Mukesh's case and circulated a press release demanding that the charges against him be dropped. They also supported Mukesh financially. In the meantime, the courts reached a decision that since investigation of Mukesh's case was underway, there was no chance of a warrant being issued. Mukesh was a free bird.

On 19th August 2012, Mukesh sent a letter to the Block Development Officer, Deputy District Collector and Superintendent of Police. The provocative letter led to Mukesh being arrested by the police on the night of the 20th.

Video Volunteers' got in touch the Superintendent of Police and his lawyers. The SP was most co-operative. He dutifully and honorably ensured Mukesh's safety and that he was produced before a magistrate on time. The court ruled that it was definitely a case of an RTI activist being harassed by the authorities putting the case in Mukesh's court. Unfortunately the lower court could not grant him a bail because his bail was once denied by a higher court in the same case.

Mukesh had to spend two more nights in prison before he was produced to the higher court. The court condemned the case and Mukesh was out. He is still fighting the case.

This time, he's looking to get the Rojgar Sevika and her accomplices to admit their corruption and resign from their offices.

Case 4.

On the 27th of February 2012, our Community Correspondent Sarita Biswal documented the illegal stone quarrying in her village on video. During the filming, the workers who were operating the machinery began to flee from the camera and the spot of the illegal quarrying. Later that day, the local adivasi community decided to protest by seizing the machinery.

In the first week of April, in the absence of Mrs. Biswal who was out of town at that time, 8 men arrived in the village at approximately 3 pm. 4 men from this group went to the houses of Sarita's supporters. The men threatened them with consequences if they attempted to investigate the matter further. They also asked them to keep away from police. Then they left a piece of paper for Sarita which had the threat in writing.

VV’s response:

We have contacted all the higher officials like the District Collector & DSP. An intern from the office went to her village to follow the case, assist Sarita as she visited the government offices and managed to capture the process on camera.

Sarita has not been able to follow up with the case, as her health is not good. Also she got married and does not live in her village anymore. But Sarita is determined that she will fight her fight to the end. Video Volunteers will be by her side.

Case 5.

Since the evening of 8th December, 2012, community journalist Aparna Marandi and her 4 year old son Alok Chandra were detained by the Jharkhand Police at Hatiya Railway Station, Ranchi, Jharkhand along with their companions Baby Turi, Headwoman of Jatipur Panchayat, Sushila Ekka, social worker and 14 year old Satish, a relative of Aparna.

The manner in which they were picked up, interrogated and detained, are in clear violation of all established procedures and rules. Aparna was forced to sign a confessional statement on the basis of which she has been taken away to Dumka prison. All of them were mistreated and mentally tortured during this unlawful interrogation.

Baby, Sushila and Satish have been released. Aparna and Alok are allegedly being held in Dumka prison.

Video Volunteers have been closely monitoring and following Aparna's case. As VV director Stalin K says," Aparna is only an incident. The issue is much larger."

Aparna is the wife of cultural activist Jeetan Marandi. Despite being acquitted by the Jhakhand High Court, Jeetan languished in prison for four long years. He was released in March 2013 and continues to fight for his wife and son’s release.

Since Jeetan’s arrest, Aparna had been indefatigable. She is one of the most powerful voices for human rights and justice in grassroots Jharkhand. She is yet another peace loving, justice seeking Jharkhand human rights activist who has been implicated in so-called ‘Maoist Attacks’.

Video Volunteers' response: On hearing of her arrest we immediately sent out a public letter across the Internet. The appeal was specially forwarded to Human Rights Groups and Activist friends. HRLN was contacted and we secured the services of a lawyer for Aparna.

We drafted a call to action for public at large. They were asked to call the DGP's number and ask Aparna's whereabouts. After the first few calls went through and DGP tried to wash his hands of the situation, his phone was shut down.

As soon as we received an update from the ground, we would publish it across our social media. 

We worked together organization like PUCLPUDR and Amnesty India
.  Our efforts are to give Aparna's case maximum visibility. Tehelka, India's largest independent weekly and Video Volunteers' media partner published a detailed story on Aparna's case.

On the ground, our lawyers have managed to visit Dumka prison. Aparna has signed on the vakalatnama, which gives power to an advocate to plead and argue her case on her behalf.

The case continues and if we're not behind, we're taking it ahead. All the long, winding way to justice.

Stalin K’s 10 things to remember in order to be safe in community journalism/activism:-

  1. Ensure you have the support of your community.
  2. Don't panic. Think lucid. Don't try to be heroic. And most importantly, don’t get yourself killed.
  3. If you think you are physically unsafe, move to secure location at once.
  4. Keep in contact with friends and keep them updated with details.
  5. Get a lawyer. If you are worrying where to look, the answer is HRLN.
  6. Try to reach out to the press with your story.
  7. Strategize. eg:- If you are under threat and in hiding and you want to file an RTI or send a letter or application, get a friend to mail it from another part of the country.
  8. Contact organizations like PUCL, PUDR and Amnesty with your story.
  9. Contact the District Collector/Magistrate, the CM, the DGP and the SP.
  10. Even if you can't be seen, speak out. Let your voice be heard. Exploit the social media.
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