Journalists who report from conflict zones and cover politics and corruption often pay with their lives, as underpinned in a recent report by an international media watchdog
By Karan Kaushik
“Corruption scandals make for attention-grabbing headlines, but when journalists who expose wrongdoing are killed, their murder is often the end of the story.”
—A special India report by the New York based
media watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists
That journalism is risk-prone is a given. And those particularly in the firing line are journalists who report from conflict zones or those who cover sensitive news like crime, corruption and the darker side of politics and politicians.
Yet, safety and protection of journalists is a concern that has remained largely unaddressed in our country. Murders, custodial torture, forced evictions and intimidation of journalists are commonplace occurrences. In fact, between 1992 and 2016, as many as 27 journalists were murdered in India for just doing their job.
NEED FOR A LAW
Among the few attempts to demand a separate law for journalists is a recent one by lawyers teaming up with local journalists, politicians, retired judges and civil rights activists to draw up provisions of the draft “Chhattisgarh Special Act for Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders”.
The draft legislation drawn up has proposed the following:
- Setting up a commission to probe complaints of assault or attack on journalists and human rights defenders.
- The commission must be given powers beyond the recommendatory powers of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). It must be allowed to sanction prosecution.
- A database of journalists should be created and media houses should be held accountable towards their employees or stringers who might be killed, arrested or attacked.
- The commission should have the power to take action against attackers of journalists and to intervene in cases lodged against journalists; to enquire and investigate such cases, to summon state authorities for documents and evidence and promoting initiatives to ensure protection of freedom of expression.
- The state should provide funds for setting up such a commission and to provide a mechanism for its functioning.
- The state government should fulfill its responsibility to protect, respect and guarantee human rights of journalists at risk and take effective action against public authorities and private players who violate these rights.
Safety and protection of journalists is a concern that has remained largely unaddressed in India. Murders, custodial torture, forced evictions and intimidation of journalists are commonplace occurrences.
The legislation also had space for regulating media ethics and grievances against the media. To date, this draft law is the most serious and comprehensive attempt to deal with safety of journalists.
One expert view is whether such a special status should be given to journalists as they have the same rights and restrictions to freedom of expression that other citizens enjoy. But the need for a separate law for journalists is evident from a report recently published by the New York based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The CPJ has analyzed the vulnerability of the press in India in its report, Dangerous Pursuit, which reveals that, between 1992 and 2016, as many as 27 journalists were murdered countrywide for reporting news. Of all these killings, conviction has taken place in only one case. “The CPJ is aware of only one murder in the past 10 years in which a suspect was convicted. However, the suspect was released on appeal. Even if a court hears the case, there will be delays. Government data shows that more than 31 million cases were pending in India’s court system at the end of 2013…” said the report.
POOR IMPUNITY RECORD
Highlighting India’s culture of impunity, the report identifies the two most dangerous beats for journalists as corruption and politics. “Corruption has become a dangerous disease,” the New York-based media watchdog said. The report has been prepared by Sumit Galhotra, CPJ’s Asia Program senior research associate, and Raksha Kumar, a freelance journalist.
Media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has analyzed the vulnerability of the press in India in its report, Dangerous Pursuit, which reveals that, between 1992 and 2016, as many as 27 journalists were murdered countrywide for reporting news.
Dangerous Pursuit has examined three deaths. The first one is of UP stringer Jagendra Singh, who was burnt alive, allegedly by the police in June 2015 for covering land-grab and rape by a local minister. The next was Chhattisgarh reporter Umesh Rajput, who was shot dead in January 2011 while reporting medical negligence and allegations of the involvement of a politician’s son in a gambling racket. The last is of MP journalist Akshay Singh, who passed away in July 2015 while investigating the hydra-headed Vyapam scam.
In March this year, the CPJ extensively interviewed members of the press, lawyers and relatives of the three dead journalists. One of the reasons why it chose to focus on India is the poor impunity record here and the increase in cases where journalists have been attacked or harassed, particularly in states like UP and Chhattisgarh.
This is, in fact, supported by a Press Council of India report of 2015 which states that “even though the country has robust democratic institutions and a vibrant and independent judiciary, the killers of journalists are getting away with impunity”.
Magsaysay winner P Sainath has contributed to the CPJ report by penning the foreword wherein he mentions that small town journalists often find themselves alone and abandoned.
In fact, the CPJ investigators found that journalists who report from rural areas are at a greater risk of threats and violence in comparison to their urban counterparts. “Often those working in such areas are responsible for finding advertisements, handling distribution as well as reporting… Furthermore, pay is low and financial security is lacking,” the report said.
The CPJ has included a list of recommendations to the central government, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the governments of UP and Chhattisgarh and the Indian media.
Ironically, for all their efforts, local journalists and stringers often suffer from a crisis of credibility. As in the case of freelancer Jagendra Singh, where the police took no time in questioning his legitimacy as a journalist. “The CPJ was told by an investigating officer at the time: ‘He only wrote on social media’,” stated the report.
The report further said that Uttar Pradesh accounted for more than 70 percent of the total recorded attacks on journalists in India in 2014, according to National Crime Records Bureau. “In 2015, CPJ recorded two deaths in the state. There have been no convictions in any of the murders, including that of Jagendra Singh. In almost all cases, investigation remains stalled or police have not brought charges against the suspected attackers,” the report said. Chhattisgarh, which has witnessed more than three decades of Maoist conflict, comes a close second.
The CPJ report also takes note of the fragmented press that we have in our country where the media fraternity shows little outrage when their colleagues are attacked or killed. It draws a picture of stark contrast between the Patiala House courts assault, which provoked outrage, presumably because it took place in the national capital, and the killing of a small town journalist, Karun Misra, during the same week which created no ripples.
The report said that India, being the largest democracy in the world should be a role model for other nations in safeguarding its media and promoting press freedom. It added that the country needs a national-level protection mechanism for its journalists’ safety.
The CPJ has included a list of recommendations to the central government, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the governments of UP and Chhattisgarh and the Indian media. An appendix on the 27 murdered journalists has also been incorporated in the report.
THREE TELLING TALES
The report examines the cases of Jagendra, Umesh and Akshay. The family of Jagendra Singh is traumatized but his father Sumer Singh still maintains his pride.
“The fact that he died fighting against injustice should come as no surprise to us,” Singh told CPJ.
In the report, he also recalls an incident when his son had reported on claims of untimely delivery of mails while he worked as a postmaster. “My son wrote it; he actually wrote against me in a newspaper”, Singh told CPJ. “He couldn’t stand any wrongdoing”. He added, “Jagendra didn’t fear anyone. And that’s the reason he is no longer here”.
Rajput exposed corruption and reported on the exploitation of tribal communities in Chhattisgarh for various newspapers. His brother, Parmeshwar Rajput, told CPJ that it has been difficult making the frequent hours-long journey by train and motorbike to the police station and courts over the years.
Along with trying to fight the case and hold down a job, Rajput added that he was trying to care for his mother, who had cancer. She died in 2014, without seeing justice served for her son. “At times, I felt completely hopeless”, he said.
A year after his death, there has been little visible progress in Akshay Singh’s case. It remains unclear whether he was murdered or died of natural causes.
“After his death, I am left alone with the responsibility of taking care of my family,” Pakshi Singh told CPJ during a phone call. Although a year has passed since her brother’s death, she was still unable to speak. She told CPJ that she struggles to sleep, adding:” What more can I say? He was the greatest kind of human being.”
Lead Picture: Chhattisgarh journalists protest atrocities on their brethren