What the Silence Over Journalist Suman Chattopadhyay’s Arrest Tells Us About Bengal’s Media

Atonu Choudhurri | Feb 3, 2019 | 6 min read


Kolkata: The arrest of veteran journalist Suman Chattopadhyay in Kolkata last week in connection with the Icore chit-fund scam mostly went unreported by his colleagues in the regional news organisations—laying bare a deep-rooted nexus, often difficult and undesirable to expose, between politics and media.

Chattopadhyay, the editor of Times group-owned Bengali daily Ei Samay, has been an accomplished journalist for 37 years, who ushered tradition-loving Bengali journalism towards a transition with his fresh suggestions and innovative ways. His ideas made him the face of journalism in Bengal and his every move had often become subject of discussion in media earlier.

Despite his status as a celebrated journalist, Chattopadhyay’s arrest was given a wide berth by several regional media organisations. And this comes in strong contrast with the coverage that was given to similar arrests of two other high-profile journalists in the Saradha chit-fund case over four years ago.

Former Trinamool Congress MP Kunal Ghosh, who had served as the editor of Bengali daily Sangbad Pratidin and its editor-in-chief Srinjoy Bose, also a party MP, were earlier arrested in the scam that had major political ramifications in Bengal.

Both Srinjoy Bose and Kunal Ghosh name cropped up Saradha case in which lakhs of people were cheated out of their savings.

Bose owned Sangbad Pratidin and allegedly had a deal to provide content to a TV channel owned by jailed Saradha Group chairman Sudipta Sen. Investigations found that massive, unaccounted flow of money from Saradha to Bose.

In November 2016, Ghosh had allegedly tried to commit suicide by consuming sleeping pills in state's Presidency correctional home where he had been lodged since his arrest previous year. He had threatened in the court that he would take his own life if the "real beneficiaries" of the chit-fund scam were not arrested.

Back then, however, the arrests received widespread attention. Unlike the present day scenario where Chattopadhyay’s arrest hardly made any news. Why is it so? Because beneath the surface there is an undercurrent of palpable fear in these media circles. All of them are wondering the same question: Who's next?

There is a buzz in some quarters that Chattopadhyay’s arrest is being seen as the tip of the iceberg couple of other scribes fear arrested soon.

Media professionals are scared to admit this openly that the self-censorship extended towards the coverage of the incident is deliberate since any move to report the matter would earn the wrath of powers-that-be. Though the BJP-led central government has claimed that the arrests are aimed at ensuring justice for the poor people (mostly from Bengal, Odisha, and Assam) who had been cheated by Saradha, Rose Valley and Icore chit-fund companies, the state government sees it as a ploy to tarnish TMC’s image. The political drama over these arrests is far from over. According to sources, the CBI is learnt to have been looking forward to frame Chattopadhyay. Though another source said that it won't be so easy as the agency has to produce substantial proof to nail him. Whatever may be the case, the ripples can be felt far and wide given the implications it can have.

There had been talks about Chattopadhyay’s alleged involvement in the ponzi scam that defrauded millions of investors of an estimated Rs 20,000(some say Rs 50,000 crore).

If his trademark oratory skills and sharp analytical mind made him a prolific journalist, his role as an influencer brought him closer to politicians—especially the ruling party leaders. Many believe that this proximity helped him evade arrest for nearly three years despite being quizzed by the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2014.

Naturally, last week’s development then has come as a surprise for many. Even his rivals had not expected that Chattopadhyay—who has a large fan base and probably enjoyed more popularity than any other person of his ilk—could be arrested despite his maneuvering skills which often helped him bend things in his favour.

The arrest also came at a time when TMC chief Mamata Banerjee wants to project herself as the prima donna in alliance politics. As the West Bengal Chief Ministers is busy making efforts to cobble up a coalition, her prime opponent—BJP—looks all set to rake up the issue of chit-fund scam issue for political gain. The Saradha scam is one of the biggest arrows in BJP’s quiver to gain some political ground in Bengal before the high-voltage 2019 general elections where 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state are at stake.

As expected, many saffron party leaders may be waiting for Chattopadhyay, a known BJP critic, to get implicated in the chit fund scam case. His proximity to Congress leaders has also helped him earn BJP’s wrath thereby creating a greater risk for those who wish to support Chattopadhyay.

Ever since the Saradha chit-fund scam was unearthed in 2013, Bengal has seen a mushrooming of newspapers and channels that thrive under the patronage of the state government.

Three newspapers of the Saradha Group, one of eastern India’s biggest deposit-taking companies---The Bengal Post, Sakalbela and The Seven Sisters Post--- were closed in April 2013 soon after the company's collapse. The folding up of these newspapers left over 1,000 journalists and technicians redundant.

This indicates that Chattopadhyay’s arrest can open a can of worms as the investigating agency is now gathering details against some other big names in state media. While TMC may choose to project the arrest as a political vendetta, such justifications do not seem to hold water in the big picture. Chattopadhyay’s alleged financial dealings with a top national Congress leader, once proved, could land him in further trouble. However, a crackdown against certain journalists—known to be hobnobbing with non-BJP political leaders—is causing paranoia among many who are reading this as a warning by the Centre.

The ruling party at the Centre must not be willing to offer leeway to those journalists whom they see close to Congress and Trinamool. Reason is simple as the ruling party at the Centre may find cracking down on these journalists a means to intimidate them due to their closeness to two of their political opponents. Apart from TMC’s aggressive posturing, BJP also finds it difficult to fight “anti-BJP propaganda” from a section of media that is believed to be close to the ruling party leaders. In such a scenario, launching a crackdown on these media houses seems to be a way to assert power and influence their coverage.

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