Reporting under duress: Journalists in India work amid increasing danger
Two bullets hit Rajdeo Ranjan. One hit his forehead and the other, his neck. He was shot from close range by assailants on a motorcycle, the police said. Ranjan, a journalist with the Hindi daily Hindustan, headed the paper’s bureau in Siwan, Bihar.
A day earlier, on May 12, another journalist, Akhilesh Pratap, in Jharkhand’s Chatra district, was gunned down by assailants. Pratap was a journalist with Taza TV, a local Hindi news channel.
Within 24 hours, two journalists had been killed – the deadliest day for journalists in India in recent times.
While Pratap might have been a victim of, as per initial reports, organised crime (the reason for his murder is still under investigation), Ranjan – as has been widely reported – was targeted for his stories. Ranjan had written extensively on the Shrikant Bharti case – an aide of BJP MP Om Prakash Yadav – who was shot dead in 2014.
Read: Chasing stories to death
Fingers were pointed towards incarcerated Shahabuddin. In jail since 2005, the two-time MLA and four-time MP from Siwan, Shahabuddin fought on Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal tickets until he was barred from contesting elections.
Ranjan was also believed to have created a video clip, which showed Abdul Gafoor, a minister in the Nitish Kumar cabinet, meeting Shahabuddin, causing much embarrassment to the government, and also allegedly upsetting the don.
The two incidents once again triggered the debate on whether or not India is becoming a dangerous place for journalists. International agencies say so. Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) in its 2015 report went as far as to say that India is “Asia’s deadliest country for media personnel, ahead of both Pakistan and Afghanistan”.
Their ranking puts India right behind Syria and Iraq in the global tally.
The extensive data maintained by the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ), shows that 67 journalists have been killed in India since 1992 – with 39 killed with confirmed motives. Rajdeo Ranjan is just one of them. Different organisations give different numbers when one looks at the number of deaths in the past one year.
RSF lists nine deaths, CPJ maintains that seven journalists have been killed while a recent independent report by media watch website The Hoot, and IndiaSpend, a data journalism website, puts the figure at eight.
According to The Hoot, 2013 was the year that witnessed as many as eight killings. But there is a significant increase in the number of deaths reported over the years from 2011. Is there a rising threat?
CPJ’s senior research associate for their Asia Program, Sumit Galhotra, believes there is. “It’s a combination of increased frequency of attacks as well as more reporting of them. The advent of social media has helped shine a light on anti-press violence even when such attacks are not covered in the mainstream press,” he says.
The chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice CK Prasad, however, disagrees that there is a rise in attacks on journalists. “If anyone is killed because he had animosity with his brother-in-law or in relation with certain property, then this is not attack on a journalist. The Indian press is not making this distinction. When a journalist is killed, then there is an attempt to convey that the journalist has been killed for his writing. In many of the cases, it is not true,” says Prasad.
It is not just fatal attacks on scribes that plague Indian media – a range of perils mark their work environment, from threats and intimidation, to legal provisions like sedition and defamation laws that are tools used to harass journalists.
The attacks have also been associated with the growing intolerance in the country by some commentators.
Recently, on February 15, inside Delhi’s Patiala House court premises, journalists who had gone to cover the sedition case against JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, were called “anti-national” and attacked by lawyers. A few days later, in Kerala, an Asianet News journalist, Sindhu Sooryakumar received a barrage of calls with threats and abuses from BJP/RSS sympathisers for hosting a debate on Mahishasura Jayanthi.
In a recent report titled Stifling Dissent, Human Rights Watch noted that the Tamil Nadu government reportedly filed nearly 200 cases of criminal defamation between 2011 and 2016 against journalists, writers and activists.
The Tamil-language magazines Ananda Vikatan and Junior Vikatan, face charges in 34 criminal defamation cases, says the report, including for a series of articles assessing the performance of each cabinet minister.
The most recent defamation case was filed on June 3 this year, against the controversial Tamil bi-weekly newspaper Nakkeeran and its editor, RR Gopal, for a story it ran under the headline “Containeril Pannam Pathukkal, Marraikapatta Unmaigal, Sikkiya Aavanangal” (Money stashed in containers, hidden truths, seized documents) because the article allegedly contained “content of a defamatory nature against Jayalalithaa.”
Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, accounted for half the journalists’ deaths across the country in the past one year. In 2014, the state witnessed 63 attacks on journalists, according to the National Crime Records Bureau data quoted in the Lok Sabha in March.
In the central part of India, mining seems to be the prominent reason why a journalist is targeted. The mining mafia and their political nexus have often targeted journalists in the states of UP, MP and Maharashtra. RSF, in its report says, “ Two of the murders [Jagendra Singh from UP and Sandeep Kothari from MP ]... were linked to illegal mining, a sensitive environmental subject in India.”
In the state of Chhattisgarh where journalists are caught between the police and Maoists, they are often the target of ire of either side. In the past one year, the state police have thrown four journalists behind bars, including one under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. (Two of them have been released on bail recently.)
In Nagaland, the paramilitary group Assam Rifles accused prominent Naga newspapers including Morung Express and Nagalang Post of providing “support to an unlawful association” and threatened with UAPA if they continued to publish statements from outlawed National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Khaplang. The newspapers answered by publishing blank editorials in protest on November 16, the National Press Day.
“Our data shows that states like Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are among the most dangerous for journalists. As you may be aware, several journalists are imprisoned in Chhattisgarh,” says Galhotra.
Law as Refuge
The frequent targeting of journalists in Chhattisgarh led to the media community in the state to demand a law to protect journalists. The Patrakar Suraksha Kanoon Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti was formed by journalists in Bastar after the crackdown. On May 10, the group protested in New Delhi demanding a legal framework and release of the four arrested journalists.
A similar demand had been floated in Maharashtra after widespread protests following the killing of Mid-Day’s J Dey in 2011. Last year, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had said that his government was in favour of a law for the protection of journalists; however, nothing has happened yet.
Soon after the death of the two journalists in Jharkhand and Bihar, the PCI chairman had raised a demand for a special law to ensure safety of scribes. He also suggested that the cases of attacks be tried by fast-track courts. Although when asked about the journalists demanding such a law, he said, “The manner in which they are making a demand, perhaps it will be very difficult for any government to accept it. If journalists ask, then why not lawyers, why not doctors, why not everybody?”
In a statement earlier, Prasad had also rued that in 96 per cent of the cases, the matter is not taken to its logical conclusion. India has been a constant fixture on CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are frequently murdered and the killers walk free.
India has been featured on this list every consecutive year since 2008, when the Index was first published. “At all levels of government – state and federal – there appears to be a pattern of delay, resistance even, to establishing accountability in anti-press violence,” says Galhotra.
(With inputs from Vijay Swaroop in Patna and Aditya Iyer in Chennai)