The recent killings of journalists in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have once again brought to the fore the issue of their safety – mostly ignored by the State.
According to the Press Council of India (PCI), 79 journalists were murdered in the country the past 25 years. The figure is too high by any scale. India is not a war zone like Syria, Iraq or Yemen.
The fact that Jagendra Singh was burnt to death at his home allegedly by five policemen at the behest of Ram Murti Singh Verma – a minister in Uttar Pradesh government – must sound alarm bells in the fourth estate – often seen busy debating trivial issues.
Despite Jagendra Singh naming Verma in his ‘dying declaration’, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has not sacked the accused minister. Having refused to register an FIR for several days, the state police are reluctant to arrest the minister. The complicity of the state appears writ large.
Similarly, the murder of Sandeep Kothari in Madhya Pradesh is said to be the handiwork of mining mafia in Madhya Pradesh.
This is indicative of a sinister nexus between criminals, politicians and policemen that remains quite strong even today, particularly in far flung areas where journalists pay heavily for exposing corruption.
This nexus has also been responsible for killing of a large number of RTI activists across India since 2005 when the transparency law came into force.
A fearless and independent media is a pre-requisite for the democracy to survive and thrive. As eyes and ears of the society, journalists are an important part of the democratic system of checks and balances essential for effective functioning of democracy. Their killings can have chilling effect on freedom of press.
The Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre and Uttar Pradesh government on the plea seeking a CBI probe into Jagendra Singh’s murder. Given the fact that the state’s complicity is suspected, one would expect the SC to order an impartial probe by an independent agency so that the culprits could be brought to book. The case should be transferred to a fast-track court and those held guilty should be given exemplary and deterrent punishment.
Courts often take suo motu cognizance of media reports and order the authorities to take corrective measures whenever needed. Unfortunately, in this case it had to be brought to their notice.
But the SC has rightly asked the Press Council of India to suggest guidelines for journalists’ safety. Formulating and implementing such guidelines is likely to take some time. But in the meantime, media industry, journalists’ organisations and the government should join hands to ensure social security for journalists to ensure that a slain journalist’s family is not left to fend for itself.
While safety of journalists remains a genuine concern, there is also a need to check those misusing the profession for nefarious purposes, giving bad name to the entire media industry.
Notwithstanding the killings of journalists, it is heartening to see a large number of youngsters flocking to media schools to join the profession.