16 Jul 2022  |   06:26am IST

They are trying to bend our pens but will never break them

Maria Ressa, A Nobel Prize-winning journalist has just been handed an added prison sentence, others are in jail or thrashed by regime forces. Many of us journalists are living in cocoons & showing no empathy for those who keep the flame of our profession burning

Sujay Gupta

In the Wizard of Oz, (book and movie) Dorothy says, “Click the heels of the Ruby Slippers together three times” and adds “There’s no place like home and you’ll be there.”

Dorothy a simple teenage farm girl from Kansas – steals from the dictatorial Wicked Witch and ultimately uses it to liberate the oppressed people of Oz, The iconic book was written during the times of the economic depression in the USA around 1900. Her words “There’s no place like home” signifies going back to her fundamentals and to fight for the fundamentals. And the Ruby Slippers represent the underdog’s ability to triumph over powerful forces.

For many of us journalists, the Dorothy moments have made us go on and click the Ruby Slippers dipped in ink and flowing from our pens. But the irony is that while many have packed those slippers in trunks flung deep into oceans, some who still click them are not doing enough together to report on ourselves, wave the flag of solidarity, and at the very least assimilate and report on the war that journalists across the world are fighting outside their newsrooms - in courts and prisons.

This is a step-in course correction, albeit it being just a pebble.

A week ago, the Nobel Prize wasn’t enough to deter the Courts in the Philippines from increasing the prison sentence of Maria Ressa, upholding her conviction for libel. This was on July 7 when Ressa, a lighthouse of journalists all over the world, holding truth to power, and former Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr. was convicted and even added a further eight months and 20 days to their six-year prison sentence prison sentences.

Rappler, which has come to be known as the beacon of fearless journalism against a regime that brooked no opposition, is beyond an editor, but the unanimous ambassador for free speech.

Ravaged by libel suits for her team’s relentless exposes, the specific one which has earned her this prison sentence is about alleged corruption by the Chief Justice of the Philippines Supreme Court.

Her legal team which includes, needs no introduction, Amal Clooney said that her sentence is based on a law that did not exist when the article was published and on charges that were brought six years after the time limit expired. “The article was not even authored by Ms. Ressa and, as a report on a matter of public interest written in good faith, should be protected free speech in Philippine law.  The draconian sentence also flies in the face of international law and the warning by the Philippines Supreme Court that ‘the constitutionality of criminalizing libel is doubtful”,  her legal team stated

The excesses against those of us are happening in real-time.  

In Sri Lanka, on July 9, two days after the upholding of Ressa’s conviction, members of the paramilitary police Special Task Force assaulted a reporting team of News First, a broadcaster covering a protest outside Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s residence in the capital city of Colombo,

According to international reports, police used batons to beat anchors Sarasi Peiris and Judin Sinthujan, camera operator Warun Sampath, and digital correspondent Janith Mendis, according to those reports by News First.

Peiris suffered injuries to her head and back, while Sinthujan, Sampath, and Mendis sustained unspecified “serious” injuries, according to a CPJ report.

Again, on July 7, in Pakistan, on the very day of Ressa’s sentencing police in the Loralai district of the southwest Balochistan province arrested Peer Muhammad Khan Kakar, a correspondent for Dunya News, according to the  Pakistan Press Foundation, Kakkar, one of Pakistan’s senior-most journalists was arrested in response to an application filed to a local court against Kakar’s Facebook posts on  government corruption

In Bangladesh, on the evening of July 3, journalist Hasibur Rehman Rubel acting editor of Kushtiar Khabar, received a phone call and left his office in Kushtia district,

When he did not return later that night, his brother filed a missing person notice

On July 7, locals found Rubel’s body in a river in Kushtia district. The cause of his death has baffled police.

In Cambodia, on July 15, a Battambang Appeal Court upheld the provincial court’s guilty verdict against a journalist who criticized the government’s use of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines. Kao Piseth, a reporter of Siem Reap Tanhetkar (Breaking News), was sentenced to two years in prison earlier this year for “incitement to commit crimes” and obstruction of the implementation of measures to prevent COVID-19.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) told CamboJA a journalist’s association in Cambodia that his group’s “Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project recorded 15 arrests and eight arrest warrants issued against individuals for comments they made about COVID-19 in 2021”

And then on the day when this is being written, the annual India-EU Human Rights Dialogue took place. Earlier in the week, leading up to the dialogue, the Committee Protect Journalists joined India’s Editors Guild and several other organisations to put out a statement calling for the release of India’s Mohammad Zubair. 

“The arrest of journalist Mohammad Zubair marks another low for press freedom in India, where the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for members of the press reporting on sectarian issues,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C.

“Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair and allow him to pursue his journalistic work without further interference,” the statement added.

From the end of June to mid-July, the last three weeks have been torrid for journalists in Southeast Asia. With them, we have all been touched by the grimness of the times. 

But, “there’s no place like home”, and home is that well of fundamentals that we all swim in.  And yes, keep our Ruby slippers close to us

More power to the pen. Try bending it, but you can never break it, and “you” know who you are.




Iddhar Udhar