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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 30 New Delhi July 16, 2016

Rising Attacks to Silence Journalists

Sunday 17 July 2016

MEDIA

By Mohd. Afsar

The muder of journalist Rajdeo Ranjan at Siwan—the most recent one in a series of attacks on journalists in recent times, is an alarming sign of danger on freedom to report in India. As per the latest report released by the worldwide known organisation ‘Reporters Without Borders’, India is among the top three most dangerous countries for journalists. It has named India as “Asia’s deadliest country for media personnel, ahead of both Pakistan and Afghanistan”.

Recent Attacks on Power of Free Speech of Journalists

Violence, including murders and threats, is emerging as a factor to silence the journalists. This is being done by politicians and criminals in particular. The media, which is supposed to have the power of free speech, is being controlled by the influential people (especially those with political links). “Indian journalists daring to cover organised crime and its links with politicians have been exposed to a surge in violence, especially violence of criminal origin, since the start of 2015,” ‘Reporters Without Borders’ states.1 One more journalist association, ‘Patrakar Halla Virodhi Kruti Samiti’, working for the protection of journalists, also states that the number of attacks on journalists is rising by the day in India.

From a long list of murders, attacks and violence against journalists since the last few years, some are listed below.

On May 13 this year, a senior journalist, Rajdeo Ranjan, was shot dead at Siwan town in Bihar. He covered Siwan politics and crime extensively and published several reports on court proceedings against former Siwan MP Mohammad Shahabuddin. The MP is the primary accused in the case of his murder.

A day before the murder of Rajdeo Ranjan, Akhilesh Pratap Singh, a journalist working with the Taza TV news channel of Jharkhand, was shot at least thrice before he died. The reason of his death is that he revealed a number of scandals of corruption in the Jharkhand State and was therefore targeted.

Karun Misra, bureau chief of Jan Sandesh Times, a Hindi daily of Uttar Pradesh, was shot dead in February 2016. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, condemned this killing of the journalist and said: “The free flow of information as provided by the media benefits every member of society and must be defended swiftly to ensure there is no impunity for such crimes.”

In July 2015, Akshay Singh, a reporter of the Aaj Tak channel, was found dead in mysterious circumstances near the railway tracks in Madhya Pradesh while investigating the unnatural deaths in the Vyapam scam.

Editor of Khushboo Ujala, a local weekly in Mumbai, Raghavendra Dube, was murdered after he disclosed the alleged nexus between bar owners and police in July 2015.

Journalist Jagendra Singh died from burn injuries in June 2015. His family has made allegations on the UP Minister, Ram Murti Singh Verma. Before his death, he wrote on his Facebook page alleging that “Ram Murti Singh Verma can have me killed. At this time, politicians, thugs, and police, all are after me. Writing the truth is bearing heavily on my life. After exposing some of Ram Murti Singh Verma’s acts, he had me attacked...” He reported critically on politics and wrote on illegal mining and land grabs in newspapers as well as on his Facebook page regularly.

In June 2015, a journalist from Madhya Pradesh, Sandeep Kothari, was murdered by those who were involved in illegal mining and running chit-fund companies.

Senior journalist M.V.N. Shankar was brutally murdered with iron rods in Andhra Pradesh in November 2014 by the mafia exposed by him. The mafia was involved in adulteration and illegal distribution of kerosene oil and gas.

In May 2014, Tarun Acharya, a stringer with Kanak TV in Odisha, was found dead with cuts and injuries on his throat and chest. The charge for the murder was made on the owner of a cashew processing factory who used child labour at his factory and this illegal practice was reported by the journalist in his TV news reports.

Increase in murders is not the only concern about the safety of journalists. The number of physical attacks, threats and abuses on journalists is also continuing to grow in recent years and hence newspersons are facing mounting restrictions on the free flow of news and information to the public. A few cases are being mentioned here among the hundreds of such types of incidents.

In the month of April this year, more than half-a-dozen journalists and camerapersons in Jharkhand were assaulted and their equipment was damaged by policemen when they were trying to get pictures of the Cabinet Minister, Saryu Rai, who came to the police station in connection with the alleged illegal detention of a man.

Alok Singh and Kaunain Sheriff, Indian Express journalists, were assaulted by a group of lawyers at the Patiala House court complex in February 2016 while they were covering the sedition case against JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar.

A child died due to firing after the victory of Samajvadi Party MLA Naved Hasan in the block pramukh elections in February 2016. While reporting this incident, the television reporters were assaulted by the SP workers.

In October 2015, several reporters and camera-persons were allegedly assaulted by unidentified men when they were covering the West Bengal civic polls. The Opposition parties in Bengal have blamed the ruling Trinamul Congress (TMC) for the attack and alleged malpractices.

In June 2015. Kanak TV reporter Satyajit Sen and his cameraman were beaten up and their equipments were damaged by a railway security officer while they were covering a protest by the passengers of a train against the delay of the train for several hours in Odisha.

A journalist reports on what’s going right and wrong in our society. Journalists communicate facts and news stories to the people that the latter should know; that may change their lives; that inspires and motivates them. Journalists put their best efforts in order to gather evidences and chase sources. And what do they get in return? Death, physical attacks and threats! Furthermore, the attitude of the government dampens the high spirits of journalist when, for example, the present Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, seeks the withdrawal of government accreditation of the journalist. This is what she did in case of two Reuters India reporters, Aditya Kalra and Andrew MacAskill, after the news agency refused to “amend or withdraw” an October 19, 2015 report headlined ‘India’s budget cuts hurt fight against malnutrition: Maneka Gandhi’.

Violence against Female Journalists

Today in India, female journalists are increasingly being attacked, harassed and teased for carrying out their professional duties. This trend has become more persistent with the rise of the social media. They are ferociously trolled on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites for their reports and news. It is also a fact that the male journalists are also not spared by trolls on social media, but the attacks on women are more severe as they include personal attacks apart from professional ones.2 “There is no doubt that women are targeted in a way that men just are not,” Barkha Dutt, the NDTV consulting editor, said in an interview. She also revealed about an abuse campaign that targeted her by mass-sharing her contact details and attacking her on social media with abuses of sexual nature. Furthermore, it is also a fact that many of these crimes and violence are not even reported because of the powerful cultural and professional blockades in our society.

In February 2016, the house of Malini Subramaniam, working in Scroll.in, was attacked with stones and then was forced to leave Jagdalpur. This happened to her for her critical reporting against the police’s manhandling of journalists, social activists and the common people in Bastar.

In February 2016, Sindhu Sooryakumar, a news anchor in Kerala, received thousands of death threatening and harassing phone calls for hosting a discussion regarding the comments by a Kerala Minister on student protests related to the JNU issue. Her number was circulated on social media branding her as a sex worker.

Sonal Mehrotra, an NDTV reporter, was among those journalists who were manhandled and threatened at the Patiala House Court premises by lawyers in February 2016. She told in an interview that “They can get very derogatory with a woman, like question their womanhood. They won’t do that with the men.”

In January 2016, Revati Laul, a female journalist in Ahmedabad, was slapped and punched by Suresh for asking a question to a convict in a Gujarat riots case during an interview. She is writing a book on the convicts in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre case for which she met Suresh Chhara in his house.

In November 2015, V.P. Rajeena, a sub-editor with Madhyamam, a Malayalam newspaper, received a series of abusive comments and threats on her Facebook page after she posted on the ongoing sexual abuses in “Madrasas”. And later her Facebook account was blocked.

In July 2015, Manashree Pathak, a reporter with the ABP Majha in Mumbai, was verbally harassed and then physically attacked by a group of men when she visited a slum area where a deadly fire took place. She confronted a person who threw a pebble at her and in return some other goons came to abuse and attack her.

It is significant to know that the online abuse of female journalists is not only a gender bias but an attack on freedom of the press to silence female journalists. It must be addressed as a top-priority issue by the society as well as by the government.

Upsurge in Protests to Protect Journalism

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution. A question that today every journalist is asking the government and country too is: “What kind of democracy is this where its fourth pillar, the media itself, is continuously being threatened?” Journalists are facing heavy counterattacks for their reporting. They are compelled to come out on the roads to protest and join dharnas so as to re-claim their right to report.

In February 2016, journalists in Mumbai protested against the ongoing violent threats and attacks on them for questioning the policies or the wisdom of Prime Minister Narender Modi.3

In the same month, hundreds of journalists marched from Press Club of India to the Supreme Court. They were protesting against the violence against mediapersons at the Patiala House Courts during the bail hearing of JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar.

The civil rights groups and media groups across India have come out in support of the journalists, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, of Dainik Navbharat and Dainik Chhattisgarh, who are arrested since September 2015, by the Chhattisgarh Police on false allegations of having links with Naxals in Bastar. They are organising protests and dharnas in order to get them released.

Measures Needed to Protect Journalists

Our country’s fourth estate, the media and media personnel, must be protected at any cost. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure their safety and protect them in order to enable them to carry out their role without fear. The poor law and order situation is reflected by the increase in the frequency of brutal attacks on journalists.

In India, the violence against media personnel generally goes unpunished. India has a very bad record and rate of prosecution of those who kill or attack journalists. As per the report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been no convictions in any of the cases for the killing of journalists in which nearly all have covered politics, corruption or crime.4 Nintysix per cent of the cases of killing of journalists have not been taken to the logical conclusion and in some cases, investigation reached a dead-end, as reported by a committee of the Press Council of India. The latest Amnesty International report states that “Human rights defenders, journalists and protesters continued to face arbitrary arrests and detentions. Over 3200 people were being held in January 2015 under administrative detention on executive orders without charge or trial.”5 PCI Chairman Chandramouli Kumar Prasad cited two murder cases of mediapersons—Akhilesh Pratap Singh of Jharkhand and Rajdeo Ranjan of Bihar—and said: “It is a matter of grave concern that three journalists were killed in the country in the last four months and another died in a tragic accident while on the line of duty. I urge upon the government of India to enact a special law for protection of journalists and speedy trial of cases of attacks and assaults on them in special fast track courts as recommended by the sub-committee for safety of journalists appointed by the Press Council. The killing of nine journalists last year and three journalists this year so far, does not bode well for the freedom of media and safety of journalists in the country. It is sad that such incidents happen in the largest democracy in the world.

A number of steps could be taken in order to address the rising challenges to the safety of journalists and to promote press freedom. Some of these are mentioned here.

The government should introduce new laws to give stringent punishment to those who are behind the attacks on journalists. This is required because investigations without any arrests or strong prison sentences for the attackers and killers convey the wrong message that “the messenger can be easily targeted, attacked and even killed”.

Fast-track courts should be used for speedy justice for the victim journalists.

A network of working groups should be established with help from the government, states, media, civil society groups and common people to develop awareness and raise campaigns against the attacks and co-ordinate among themselves to ensure the best implementation of safety measures for the journalists.

The reality at the prosecution stage of any attack on a journalist is miserable. A case gets registered after a journalist gets killed or attacked. One or two persons are arrested or interrogated. But the question that remains unanswered is: “Is this enough?” Is there nothing more the government can do? And if not, then why is there a need to have a government?

Concluding Remarks

The media, the fourth pillar of our democracy, empowers the citizens of the country by aiding dialogue and participation in our democracy. It informs and empowers them to enhance the democratic values. Therefore, any assault on the media’s representatives is an assault on our democracy. Hence in order to protect our democracy, a free and safe environment for journalists should be created with a view to strengthening peace, democracy and development in the country.

It is very disheartening and worrying to see that in recent times, the State and Central governments are giving ample amount of space to allow the enemies of the freedom of the media to flourish. They are constantly ignoring the current ambience of violence against journalists. As a result, journalists reporting on politics, corruption and crime are increasingly being murdered, attacked and harassed by groups associated with politics and criminals.

References

1. Reporters Without Borders, https://rsf.org/en

2. Megarry, Jessica, “Online incivility or sexual harassment? Conceptualising women’s experiences in the digital age”, Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 47, Pergamon, 2014.

3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3494689/Indian-journalists-threats-attacks-Modi-PM.html~

4. Committee to Protect Journalists, http://cpj.org

5. https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/india/report-india/

The author is a senior correspondent, India News. He can be contacted at e-mail: afsar11@rediffmail.com