The death of journalist Hem Chandra Pandey has set a bad precedent for journalists who are already reeling under government pressure when it comes to reporting from Naxal-affected areas. Pandey was killed along with Maoist leader Azad in what activists say looks more like a staged encounter than a real one. “He was killed so that there is no evidence of the staged encounter,” according to Maoist leader Gudsa Usendi.
There was some confusion regarding Pandey’s identity, at first. A press release after his death from the north regional bureau of the CPI (Maoist) said he was a zonal committee member. But immediately afterwards, top Maoist leaders, including Kishenji, issued statements that he was not a party member, but a journalist who was supposed to meet Azad. His wife Babita produced a number of articles written by her husband which had appeared in various Hindi newspapers. On 2 July, the very day he was killed, one of his articles was published in Rashtriya Sahara, a Hindi daily.
On 7 July, before Pandey’s body was cremated, activists and journalists paid tributes to him and expressed grave misgivings about the Government’s disposition. Incidentally, some journalists who have been covering his death have received anonymous SMSes saying that Pandey was not a journalist and that the media fraternity should stop ‘owning him’. Already, journalists are facing enormous difficulties in states like Chhattisgarh, where media is not allowed to enter many areas by the police; even hotels there have been asked not to rent rooms to journalists. The truth is, mediapersons are within their lawful rights when they meet sources—like Maoist leaders—and should never be pressured into revealing where they get their information from. Alas, when journalists are killed, like Pandey was, the law means very little.