Violence stalks journalists across India as perpetrators roam free
Journalists across the country are increasingly facing threats and intimidation. These attacks may range from intimidation by state or mafia, harassment with the use of legal provisions or online abuses or as in some case, at the behest of a powerful politician or businessman. The cases, however, hardly reach any logical conclusion.Updated: Jul 03, 2016, 11:38 IST
Journalists across the country are increasingly facing threats and intimidation. As per available data, shared in the Lok Sabha by Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, Minister of State (Home Affairs), in March, a total of 114 cases were registered under attack on media person (grievously hurt) during 2014. Some 32 persons were arrested. However, the cases hardly reached any logical conclusion.
These attacks may range from intimidation by state or mafia, harassment with the use of legal provisions or online abuses or as in some case, at the behest of a powerful politician or businessman. Hindustan Times brings reports from different states where journalists have borne the brunt for doing their job.
Thirteen, they say, is an unlucky number. It was for Rajdeo Ranjan, 42, a journalist with the Hindi daily Hindustan, who was shot dead at point blank by criminals at a busy market place in Siwan on Friday, May 13.
Ranjan had written extensively on the Shrikant Bharti case — an aide of BJP MP Omprakash Yadav – who was shot dead in 2014. 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 expose had led to the jail superintendent’s suspension and a sharp curtailment in conveniences available till then to the ex-MP in jail.
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Journalists took to the streets in protest. Some even swapped their WhatsApp profile picture with the message, “Stop killing journalists.”
“The Siwan killing has once again brought a sense of fear among journalists working in Bihar. It has emboldened the anti-socials, politicians and others, who are now not missing an opportunity to demoralise the people from the media,” said a senior journalist.
Soon after Rajdeo’s murder, three more journalists and non-journalists associated with different media houses were at the receiving end of anti-social elements and politicians.
A journalist was abused and threatened with dire consequences by four unidentified men in Nalanda on May 19. The incident took place in the office of a leading vernacular daily at Biharsharif town. In other incidents, two photo journalists were attacked around the state capital while covering panchayat elections. A production employee of an English daily was beaten up and driven around in an SUV the whole night before being dumped on the road.
A senior columnist in the state compares the incidences to the pre-2004 period when reporters/journalists were scared to travel in the countryside of Bihar after sunset.
“The killing of Rajdeo has brought a deep sense of fear among journalists, particularly those in district headquarters. In Siwan every person coming to media houses, even with a press release was seen with suspicion,” said Kamlesh, a senior journalist with Hindustan who was temporarily sent from Patna to Siwan post-Rajdeo’s killing.
Like other parts of the country, attacks on journalists are not new in Bihar. Post the fodder scam, in the late 1990s, an editor of an English daily was attacked and bullets fired on his car while another senior journalist was manhandled by the then ruling party MLA in a market place in Patna.
Lok Sabha statistics reveal that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar recorded the highest number of assaults on journalists in 2014 — 63 and 22, respectively.
As things stand, a small spark, an investigative report on a scam, an expose of a politician, or even an unfavourable tweet, can invite an attack — verbal, physical or in cyber space — compelling journalists in Bihar to live in constant fear.
Rajesh Kumar Singh
From threats to assaults to murders, journalists are increasingly being targeted, often by organised criminal networks like the sand mining mafia or real estate goons in the state.
In February, Karun Mishra, a journalist who worked with local Hindi daily in Sultanpur district, was shot dead in broad daylight by assailants of the sand mafia while he was on his way home. Mishra had drawn the ire of the sand mafia after he ran a campaign in the newspaper against illegal sand mining in the area.
Police IG (Lucknow Zone) who monitored the investigation of the case, said enmity with a mining mafia led to the scribe’s murder. The police arrested the main conspirator Rahul Singh, who runs an illegal mining racket in Sultanpur and Ambedkar Nagar districts.
In 2014, the state witnessed 63 attacks on journalists, according to the National Crime Records Bureau data, quoted in the Lok Sabha by Minister of State (Home Affairs), Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary in March.
Last year around a dozen fatal attacks on journalists took place in UP.
A journalist, Hemant Yadav, who worked with a local news channel in Chandauli, was shot dead by unidentified motorcycle-borne assailants in October last year. A scribe with local Hindi daily, Sanjay Pathak, was shot dead in August in Bareilly.
Scribes Alok Mishra and Pushpesh Tripathi were assaulted and injured by the sand mining mafia at a ghat in Kaushambi in April 2015 after they exposed the illegal mining activities earlier that month.
Vinay Baliyaan, a local correspondent of Hindi daily Amar Ujala, was shot at by unidentified persons in Kandhla area in Shamli district on May 25.He was grievously injured in the attack and had to be operated on in a private hospital in Delhi. “I was attacked for fair reporting of a clash between the police and member of a community in Kandhala on May 2,” says Baliyaan.
A member of Uttar Pradesh Accredited Journalists Association, Ajit Kumar said a journalist Rakesh Sharma who worked for a Hindi daily was shot dead in Etawah district last year. The cops termed it as a case of personal rivalry. In another case, a journalist Shashank Shukla was found dead in Banda district. A few days later, the dead body of a journalist Zakaullah was found dumped on the side of a road in Bulandshahar district.
Last year, the killing of Jagendra Singh drew national outrage. Singh was allegedly set on fire by five policemen on June 1 when the team raided his house in Shahjahanpur to arrest him in a case. He died of burn injuries a week later. The family members of Singh said he had carried out stories highlighting corruption by minister Ram Murti Singh Verma. Acting on the petition of Raghvendra, Jagendra’s son, the police registered an FIR against Verma and his associates.
These are just the recent cases of assault on local journalists. Suman Gupta, a member of the Press Council of India fact-finding team that visited Shahjahanpur after Jagendra Singh’s death, said the state government should provide security to journalists who are threatened by the mafiosi.
“In a majority of the cases no action is taken against the attackers, who either remain “unidentified” or are just too powerful to be prosecuted,” Siddharth Kalhans, general secretary of UP Accredited Journalists Association. “The offenders mostly go scot-free due to lack of evidence.”
A Journalist Protection Act is the need of the hour, on par with Whistle Blower Protection Act, added Kalhans.
In the wake of outrage over attacks on journalists the state government directed Debashish Panda, principal secretary (home), to take up the cases of atrocities against media persons at the district level. The state Information department has also set up a helpline for journalists.
The state of Tamil Nadu, particularly under the rule of current chief minister Jayalalithaa, has seen a concentrated effort on the part of the government to curb the freedom of the press via defamation and sedition laws.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Jayalalithaa government has filed more than 200 criminal cases of defamation in Chennai alone, targeting journalists, media organisation, activists and political foes alike.
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). The article allegedly contained “content of a defamatory nature against Jayalalithaa.”
The AIADMK’s go-to method for harassing the press is evident in its penchant for filing criminal cases: In 2015, 11 out of the total 48 cases in India were filed at her behest.
The liberal use of Sections 499 and 500 (of IPC) even caught the attention of the Supreme Court, which slammed the CM on the issue near the end of last year. A bench comprised of Justices Dipak Mishra and Prafulla Pant told Jayalalithaa to not take critical articles as being tantamount to a personal attack.
“You have to understand that these comments are a criticism of a concept of governance,” Justice Mishra was quoted as saying by The Hindu. “There is nothing against an individual. Why this criminal defamation then.”
Another target of the AIADMK chief is a popular Tamil magazine, Junior Vikatan, which has seen 20 cases of criminal defamation lodged against it for a number of articles deemed to be critical of the ruling regime.
The latest was filed against its editor, P Thirumavelan, after an article came out auditing the performance of the chief minister in the last 30 weeks of the previous government.
Previously, since power was alternating between two parties, there was scope that defamation cases would be withdrawn. But this time around, since it is the AIADMK government, the cases will continue. “But, we wrote against DMK ministers too and there was nothing against us. Even when we were writing against AIADMK ministers, no one filed a case. Only when we wrote about Jayalalithaa, they started filing cases," says Thirumavelan.
Undeterred, Thirumavelan says that “filing cases is their routine work, and writing about them is our routine. Just because they are filing cases, we will not abandon our work.”
The use of defamation appears to have replaced violence as the state’s preferred tactic to silence the press. In 2012, AIADMK workers had attacked the offices of Nakkeeran after an article called Jayalalithaa a “beef eater”.
But it is a different violence all the same. And with Jayalalithaa in charge of Tamil Nadu for the next five years at least, it doesn’t look like the attack on the freedom of the press will end soon.
A year ago, on June 21, a charred body of a journalist was found lying near the railway tracks in Wardha district of Maharashtra. The body was of Sandeep Kothari, a journalist with Hindi daily Nai Dunia based in Katangi, 430 kms from the state capital Bhopal. Depending on who you speak to, Kothari was someone who regularly wrote on illegal mining and land grab or was a blackmailer, claimed as such by the police too, who had several criminal cases against him.
The Reporters Sans Frontières report however mentioned Kothari as one of the journalists killed for his environmental journalism. Organised crime, especially illegal mining and land grab, has been increasingly targeting journalists in the states in central India.
In the last three years, there have been at least two cases of journalists having been attacked by the mining mafia in MP.
Three years ago, a TV journalist Brijendra Pandey, who worked for Sahara Samay, a Hindi news channel, was attacked by the sand mafia in Karaikhedi area of Vidisha district. Two men were arrested.
In April 2016, another TV journalist Prashant Dubey and cameraman Azad Sirviya, who also work for Sahara Samay, were attacked by those involved in illegal sand mining from Tawa river in Hoshangabad district.
Not only did the goons hired by the mining mafia attack Dubey, but also tried to abduct him, while the two men team captured live visuals of the illegal mining of sand from the river. Four persons were arrested in the case by the Hoshangabad Dehat police in the matter.
“It was on April 16 that I got to know about sand laden dumpers of mining mafia being parked on Hoshangabad-Piparia Road near Bawai. Along with my video journalist, I reached the spot and started capturing visuals of sand laden dumpers which had mined sand illegally from the Tawa river,” recalled Dubey.
Just when the two started enquiring about sand being illegally mined, around 10-15 men in two cars arrived at the spot and attacked the duo.
“Even before we could understand anything they attacked us with sticks and broke the camera. One of them took out the memory card containing visuals of the overloaded sand dumpers. We were forced to sit in a car by the armed men and taken to a nearby office of the mining mafia,” said Dubey.
According to Hoshangabad Dehat police station staff, a case of abduction and assault was lodged against 10-15 unidentified persons, out of whom 4 have been arrested so far.
“They have been arrested and released on bail, but those at whose behest we were attacked and kidnapped are yet to be identified by the police,” said 38-year-old Dubey.
And it’s not just the mining mafia. In May, journalists and police were attacked by the liquor mafia in MP’s Satna district.
Asianet News channel moderator Sindhu Sooryakumar never expected that she would face a volley of abuses for a news debate. All she did was to moderate a discussion on whether celebrating ‘Mahishashura Jayanthi’ could be considered treason on Asianet News Hour.
She allegedly received over 1000 calls, from within the country and abroad, the next day ,abusing her. Soon WhatsApp and Facebook pages were created claiming she portrayed Goddess Durga in poor light and exhorted all to call Sooryakumar and register their protest. Her phone number was also shared in these groups.
“It was disgusting. Some of them even called me a sex worker and 90 per cent of callers had not even seen my programme. They were carried away by a vicious campaign perpetrated by some,” said Sooryakumar who was forced to shut her social media accounts and change her phone number.
The police later arrested four persons, all of them RSS workers in this regard.
Her problems were further aggravated after Malayalam film-maker Major Ravi abused her in public saying he would like to spit on her face, if allowed. He said Sindhu did not find anything wrong in calling “Durga Devi a prostitute” because she also belonged to the same category.
“Almost three months have passed since the incident but there is no headway in the police probe. I continue to get threatening calls,” she lamented. Though many outfits, including journalists’ organizations, took up her case but eventually all the protests died down.
Last month, a group of media persons were allegedly attacked by BJP-RSS workers in Ottapalam, in Palakkad district. They were attacked near the Ottappalam Court complex when police brought six party workers, arrested in connection with post-poll violence. The police registered a case against three people including the RSS district pracharak .
Another case that hit the headlines was the brutal attack on Mathrubhumi senior reporter VB Unnithan in April 2011. It all began with a series of stories published in the Malayalam daily about an alleged party thrown by a liquor baron attended by some police officers and TV serial actors. Once the issue snowballed into a controversy police officers mentioned in the report were transferred.
This infuriated them and they allegedly sought the help of a criminal gang to silence the reporter. Unnithan was waylaid and attacked while he was returning from work. In the attack both his legs fractured and few ribs were also broken.
After few days of the attack, the main accused in the case Happy Rajesh was found murdered in his auto-rickshaw. It was alleged that he was finished off to destroy crucial evidence, since many police officers were allegedly involved in the case.
Later, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested three senior police officers in connection with the case. But later one of the DySPs, who was also an office-bearer of the police officers’ association, was reinstated.
“See you can’t kill the messenger. Journalists are doing this for the larger interest of the society. Initially Kerala police weren’t willing to hand over the case to the CBI. A lot of pressure was needed for this,” said Unnithan.
The increasing frequency of attacks on journalists on assignment over the past decade has turned news-gatherers in West Bengal into a worried lot. Several journalists have been hospitalised and had their cameras broken when covering incidents of violence. In other states journalists might get attacked by goons and mafias, in West Bengal it is political violence that targets journalists.
“The anxiety was never as high as it is now. Whenever we move out to a place ripped by violence, we start getting mentally prepared for assaults,” said Prakash Sinha, a journalist with a prominent news channel. Sinha has been attacked thrice in the past two years. In all instances, supporters of Trinamool Congress attacked him, he recalled.
During the Bidhan Nagar municipal election last year, several journalists were thrashed when they tried to capture visual footage of poll rigging, allegedly by Trinamool Congress workers. Scribes were beaten up in the districts of Nadia and North 24 Parganas as well.
“We are worried with the trend of increasing attack on journalists. Previously, it was the CPI(M) that attacked journalists. Over the past few years, members of Trinamool Congress have been behind such attacks,” said human rights activist Ranjit Sur, who is a secretariat member of rights group Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR).
Journalists, however, have been at the receiving end while covering incidents of child death or medical negligence in government hospitals too. Barely a month ago, three journalists in Malda district were thrashed by junior doctors at Malda medical college and hospital when they went to investigate a case of alleged medical negligence.
In West Midnapore, four journalists were arrested last month on the charge of beating a supporter of the ruling party. However, they were released later in the day after chief minister Mamata Banerjee reportedly told the district administration that she was not happy with the arrest of journalists.
Earlier, attacks on journalists were a regular affair during the anti-land acquisition movements in Singur and Nandigram and also during the Maoist-backed tribal movements in Lalgarh. Despite the days of turbulence being over, and with the change of regime in the Writers’ Buildings in 2011, the frequency of attacks on journalists has only increased.
According to senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, Abdul Mannan, Trinamool Congress targets journalists with the specific intention of blocking out the flow of information. “They are involved in thousands of misdeeds. But when the media reaches the spot to investigate, they become desperate in ensuring the journalists leave the venue at the earliest,” said Mannan.
“We believe in freedom of press and have always advised workers of our party to let journalists work freely,” senior Trinamool leader and food minister Jyotipriya Mallick said.