Chasing stories to death: The challenges of being a journalist

  • Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 06, 2015 12:18 IST

Soon after the death of journalist Jagendra Singh in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, reports started pouring in of how the journalist was burnt to death at the behest of a state minister for his stories against him. TV channels ran the clip, over and over, of a dying Jagendra saying: "Why did they have to burn me?"

Big city journalists parachuted in to cover the incident. A few called him a journalist, some a 'Facebook or social media' journalist, others an 'activist' journalist. A section of the local media, however, refused to acknowledge that Jagendra Singh was a journalist at all, despite his years of experience at four different newspapers.

Shahjahanpur-based social media journalist Jagendra Singh succumbed to burn injuries in King George Medical University (KGMU) in Lucknow. (Photo courtesy- Jagendra Singh's FB page)

A few days later, when another journalist from Madhya Pradesh, Sandeep Kothari, was killed probably due to his investigative pieces on the land and mining mafia, he was called a blackmailer. Haider Khan, a journalist from a village near Pilibhit, who was beaten unconscious and dragged behind a bike, was being called a 'farzi' journalist and a blackmailer by local stringers.

In Kashmir, photojournalist Bilal Bahadur and few others were beaten by alleged henchmen of a political party who accused them of creating chaos at a protest that they were covering.

Labelling a journalist as a rumour monger, blackmailer, broker or troublemaker is a tool often used to discredit his work. But unscrupulous or not, hundreds of small town journalists persist in working under threat. And if they are targeted, they often find that the fraternity shows little or no support. "Some divine power must be behind Jagendra's case that it is getting all this attention, otherwise people hardly care. In my 22 years in the profession, I've seen journalists disappearing, being killed in broad daylight and in one case, an editor's office being blown off by a grenade attack. After two days, even the local media forgot about it," says Rajesh Deval, a stringer with The Pioneer's Hindi edition. Deval is from Khutar, Jagendra's home town that's 50km from Shahjahanpur.

According to the Press Council of India, 79 journalists have been killed in the past 25 years. The database maintained since 1992 by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that 22 journalists have been murdered (with confirmed motives). Most of these journalists covered crime, corruption or politics and the suspected party involved was usually a member of a criminal gang, political group or were government officials.

Ground report: Life of a small town journalist (Report by Furquan Ameen Siddiqui)

1. Narendra Yadav, Uttar Pradesh; Attacked by the Godman's goons

Pointing to a hand gun strapped to his body, Narendra Yadav says, "Why should a journalist need a gun? I don't think I can use it even if I need to. I have to hide it when I am reporting. No one talks to me if they see the gun."

On the night of September 17 last year, Yadav, a journalist with Dainik Jagran in Shahjahanpur, was attacked by two unidentified assailants when he walked out of his office sometime after 10 pm. One of them slit his throat with a sickle. A long scar, running from his chin to his right cheek, bears witness to the incident. There is another scar right below his throat. "It took 48 stitches to fix the upper wound, and 28 for the other," he says. Ask Yadav why he was attacked and a smile spreads across his otherwise grim face. "I dug out all the roots of Asaram Bapu. There wasn't any angle, any event or any update on his case that I didn't report. Between August 2013 to September 2014, I wrote 287 reports related to him," he claims. In August 2013, the self-proclaimed 'godman' was accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at his ashram in Jodhpur. The girl was from Shajahanpur.

Yadav claims that Asaram's goons started targeting him after he got an event scheduled in Shahjahanpur cancelled; Asaram was supposed to preach at that event. "I was offered `5 lakh to go soft on him. They even offered to bribe me with a car but when I didn't stop writing against him, his goons tried to kill me," says Yadav. "The hospital expenses and the amount spent in procuring a hand gun has financially set me back by 10 years," he says.

Ten months on, the case is under investigation. The case has been transferred many a times, alleges Yadav, and the police haven't taken any steps against Asaram in the matter. "No arrests have been made in the case yet or compensation provided. Rather, they tried to turn it into a case of property dispute. I work in a newspaper but I can't voice my own problems."

2. Prasanta Kumar Assam: Tortured for writing on rebels (Report by Rahul Karmakar)

Prasanta Kumar teaches at a local school for a living. His interest in writing means that he contributes as a rural correspondent to most Assamese language dailies. Typically, these correspondents are paid by the column centimetre. Prasanta Kumar lives and works in Khairabari, one of Udalguri district's development blocks 80 km from Guwahati. The place has had a history of violence since the communal riots of 1983 followed by the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003 that drove a wedge between the tribal Bodos and non-Bodos. The militant group, National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit (NDFB-S) has allegedly been exploiting this division and terrorising the local population.

"At around 8.30 pm, on my way back home, a Maruti Alto blocked my path. Five people emerged claiming to be NDFB-S members. One of them stuck a pistol to my left shoulder and fired. I was then driven around for the next few hours, hit with pistol butts, and asked to arrange `9 lakh for my release," says Kumar who is currently recovering from his wound.

The assailants accused Kumar of ignoring the issues of the Bodos while promoting non-Bodo organisations. "I told them I don't write against or for anyone, and that they could kill me since ransom was out of the question," he says.

The bleeding Kumar was dumped near Tangla town, 25 km east of Khairabari. The Asomiya Pratidin group arranged for him to be treated. The police in Khairabari, however, hasn't provided him or his family with security. The local media fraternity - the area has some 15 print and TV reporters, tribal and non-tribal - commiserated but most inhabitants avoided Kumar's house lest they invite the wrath of the rebels.

3. Naveen Soorinje, Karnataka: Labelled a collaborator (Report by Sudipto Mondal)

In July 2012, Naveen Soorinje, a former reporter with a Kannada news channel, was the only journalist to capture a daring daytime attack on teenage boys and girls who were celebrating a birthday party at a resort outside Mangalore.

Footage captured by Naveen's crew showed the Hindutva activists of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike and the BJP mercilessly beating the boys and molesting the girls without any fear of the evidence that was being recorded. "I made three copies of the footage and gave one each to the police, my channel and the entire visual media," Naveen says.

To his shock, he was booked under the same sections of the UAPA and the IPC as the attackers - carrying lethal weapons, outraging the modesty of a woman, trespassing and criminal intimidation.

Many leaders from the then BJP government accused Naveen of instigating the attackers. "I was on air for 10 hours a day reporting on the attack. Through a series of interviews with the victims and my own investigation, I exposed how the police and several BJP leaders had helped the attackers. They wanted to shut me up," he says.

Soorinje was finally released by the High Court after a 19-year-old victim told the court that the police had forged his complaint to include Naveen's name among the accused. That was after he had spent five months in jail.

Persecution of journalists critical of the establishment and the silence that followed from the rest of the fraternity has been a recurring theme in the state. BV Seetheram, Naveen's former editor at the Mangalore-based Karavali Ale newspaper, had two short stints in jail for writing articles critical of the Sangh Parivar and its ideologues. Journalist Shahina KK was booked after she exposed how the Karnataka police had propped up fake witnesses to arrest Kerala PDP leader Abdul Nasser Maudany in a terror case.

4. Laxman Choudhury, Odisha: Accused of sedition and criminal conspiracy (Report by Priya Ranjan Sahu)

Laxman Choudhury, working as a reporter for leading Odia daily Sambad for the remote Mohana block exposed the nexus between ganja traders and the police though a series of stories in the publication. On September 20, 2009, the police seized a packet addressed to Choudhury in which alleged 'Maoist literature' was found. Choudhury was arrested soon after for being the 'intended' (not the actual) recipient of the packet.

He was then slapped with a plethora of charges including sedition and criminal conspiracy and sent to jail. The newspaper stall Choudhury ran was closed for days and his wife Binita had to fend for herself along with their four-year old daughter. But help poured in as Choudhury's arrest sparked statewide protests. Mounting public pressure made the authorities withdraw some of the more outrageous charges against Choudhury and that helped him get bail. However, by the time that happened, he had already spent 73 days in jail.

Interestingly, two months after Choudhury secured bail, the inspector who was responsible for his arrest was himself arrested by the vigilance department. He was caught taking a `35,000 bribe from a ganja trader. The incident further vindicated the reporter's stand about the police-ganja trader nexus. "The overwhelming support I got from fellow journalists, my newspaper and from the common man made me feel that I was not wrong," said Choudhury, who still works for Sambad.

Case files

According to the Press Council of India, 79 journalists have been killed in the past 25 years. 22 journalists have been murdered (with confirmed motives) since 1992, records the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Of the 22 cases, the slain journalists primarily covered crime, corruption or politics.

India is ranked 13 in the CPJ annual impunity index. 95 per cent of those accused of being involved in the murder of a journalist were not sentenced. Partial justice was delivered in just 5 per cent of such cases.

The threat of being a reporter

Ask any small town reporter about the threats he routinely faces, and vidhayakjis (MLAs) and their goons and dabang businessmen figure prominently in the conversation. Most of the incidents that have occurred in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, bear the clear imprint of the politician-mafia-police nexus. Deval believes the life of a stringer working in such conditions is rendered even more difficult when a news organisation is ready to disown him at the first sign of trouble. As a result, most who want to sustain their livelihoods steer clear of hard-hitting stories, especially if they are investigative and accuse local power centres.

"I don't invest in investigative stories. If we don't write anything bad about anyone, we don't praise them either," says Rafiq Anwar Warsi, who runs a four-page Hindi weekly called Golden Tomorrow from Pilibhit. Warsi started his small press in 1974 and circulates his newspaper in the nearby districts. The publication runs on a shoe-string budget with around 20 reporters writing for it for free. "It's either because they have a passion to write or they make some money from 'other' sources," says Warsi who doesn't object to the practice. His reporters do it to survive and all he's interested in is his circulation, he says.

Mohammad Irfan, an executive member of the National Union of Journalists, believes a lack of proper training and the pittance paid to journalists by regional media houses is one of the reasons why some of them turn to people with power or money. "A journalist here isn't a mere reporter. He looks after circulation, gets advertisements and does marketing as well," says a Rashtriya Sahara stringer in Khutar. "For that you get a sum of Rs 1,500 per month. And that's only if you work for the leading newspapers. Others pay much less. In this salary, forget running a household, you can't even buy tea for your family for a month," he adds.

Getting advertisements for the media house is part of the reporter's duties here with stringers being accepted only after they agree to fulfil the monthly advertisement target, for which they get a cut.

This encourages unsavoury behaviour that could end very badly. "Such tactics are used by people who want to get close to power or to influence the local administration. A press card facilitates that. Every other journalist you meet is an agent responsible for selling newspapers by day; after 8 pm they turn into journalists, prowling the streets on their vehicles that boast of a press sticker," says Irfan.

There are those who insist on chasing down a good story and exposing local corruption. But should anything unfortunate happen, the local media usually refrains from showing any solidarity. This is especially so of independent journalists, who are easily labelled as blackmailers. Their deaths are turned into accidents or suicides, and the investigations into the cases are forgotten.

"Journalists are targeted only if they are true to their profession or if they are too close to the powerful," says Narendra Yadav, a Dainik Jagran journalist from Shahjahanpur. "If I had died like Jagendra did, I'd have been called a blackmailer too," he says.

Read: When murder is a gag weapon

Read: Deaths, mishaps and suicides in Vyapam scam

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