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Press Barons Imprisoned in Office by Punjab Terrorism

April 25, 1991

JULLUNDUR, India (AP) _ Vijay Kumar Chopra, editor of one of the largest newspaper chains in India, has been a prisoner of his office for eight years. So have his son and two nephews, who help run his papers.

Chopra’s father and the chain’s founder, Lala Jagat Narain, was assassinated by Sikh militants in 1981. His brother Romesh Chandra, who took over as chief editor, was gunned down three years later.

Altogether, 58 editors, reporters and vendors who distributed the chain’s three papers have been killed.

The latest victim was a reporter murdered March 31.

At one point, circulation dropped by half when many vendors refused to deliver. Now all the papers are distributed with an armed guard.

The Chopras live in Punjab, the north Indian state where Sikh extremists are fighting for independence and the daily press is caught in a vise between terrorist threats and government pressure.

The Chopras’ Hind Samachar group, which publishes papers in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, is virulently anti-militant.

Chopra, 59, and his three family members, each carrying a pistol, walk the 20 steps from their joint home to their office guarded by 25 private security agents and paramilitary forces.

The three youngest members of the clan are taken to kindergarten in an armor-plated car with no license plate.

″We don’t go out at all. Maybe once a year with the prime minister when he goes abroad. Then there is enough security for us,″ said Arvind Chopra, the 29-year-old sports editor and son of the slain Romesh Chandra.

They don’t go to parties. Visitors are thoroughly checked at the door.

In Punjab, partisan journalism is the norm.

″We won’t publish anything about the terrorists unless it serves to ridicule them,″ Vijay Chopra said, sitting behind a desk stacked head-high with papers and reports.

The editor of the rival Punjabi-language newspaper Ajit, Barjinder Singh, claims to take a more balanced editorial line.

Singh admits being sympathetic to the Sikh movement for a separate state. ″But we condemn the killings. I have written dozens of editorials against the killing of innocent people.″

Some say the battle between the two newspaper groups is a religious one. The Chopras are Hindus, while Singh is a Sikh. Sikhs are just over half the population in Punjab, but they are only 2 percent of India’s total population of 844 million, which is overwhelmingly Hindu.

The shooting of Vijay Chopra’s father 10 years ago marked the beginning of the violent turn in the separatist campaign. More than 3,300 people were killed in Punjab last year alone, and it is one of the worst ongoing civil conflicts anywhere in the world.

Journalistic integrity is often compromised when a statement from the militants is sent to the editorial offices along with a death threat if it is not published in full.

Last year the militants issued a ″press code″ instructing all media to stop referring to them as terrorists, the term routinely used by Indian media for separatist groups. The regional director of the federal government’s radio station was killed when he defied the order.

Chopra caved in to that demand. ″All the staff came to us and said, ‘If you can save us by doing this, why not?’ I stay here sitting securely in my office, but my people move about.″

Chopra charges that the militants’ edicts have shattered normal life and made fear universal. ″There are hundreds of schools where the national anthem is not sung. Children cannot wear school uniforms, and girls can’t wear the dress of their choice,″ he said.

On the other hand, the government has forbidden the publication of announcements which it finds objectionable, such as notices of the funerals of slain militants. Singh said the military has seized ″five or six editions″ of his paper in the last month.

Chopra’s empire, which includes the largest Hindi-language daily in India, is on a narrow street blocked by brick machine gun bunkers, adding to the fortress-like isolation.

Isn’t it a lonely existence? ″We don’t have time to think about it,″ Arvind Chopra said. ″It’s only on Sunday when we are alone with the wives and families that we get a strange feeling. But on Monday it goes away.″

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