In the Land of Gandhi, journalists are still a prime target for murder
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In the Land of Gandhi, journalists are still a prime target for murder

FOR more than one reason, India remains a hazardous place for journalists irrespective of who is in power in the national or provincial capitals. Around five media workers are killed annually and that has not been improved for decades.

The vibrant media fraternity of India observed an unusual Gandhi Jayanti last month as scores of scribes across the country organised protest demonstrations in different locations with the sole demand of ensuring safety, security and justice for working journalists.

The reason behind demonstrating anger on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday on Oct 2 was ongoing violence against the journalists in different forms in the world’s largest democracy. Different press clubs, media bodies and civil society organisations formed human chains, symbolic protests and also took out processions in support of the demand.

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In the spirit of the lawyer, journalist and India’s Father of the Nation, the media fraternity also showed their commitment to reject violence against people in their profession. The South Asian nation witnessed the shocking news of three journo murders in September. It was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of those who continue to pursue critical journalism. The previous ten months had seen the murders of nine Indian journalists, which went without much public attention.

But the murder of Kannada editor-journalist Gauri Lankesh on Sept 5 at her Bangaluru (earlier known as Bangalore) residence sparked massive protests across the country. Publisher of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada language newspaper in Karnataka of central India, Gauri was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Gauri’s murder also caught the attention and condemnation of international organisations.

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Slain journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2012. Source: Hari Prasad Nadig / Flickr

Gauri’s assassination pushed more civil society groups who oppose Hindu nationalist ideologues like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to take to the streets demanding justice. They were in hurry to make statements that the outspoken journalist was targeted by the ruling political elements as she used to criticize both RSS and BJP absolutely.

The Congress-ruled head of the Karnataka government, Siddaramaiah, who had a cordial relationship with Gauri, declared her demise as a personal loss. Nevertheless, the official response to the 55-year-old’s murder was soft. The Karnataka police only recently publicly issued a few sketches of suspected killers, but nobody has been arrested to date.

The protest-demonstrations against Gauri’s killing even inspired a Communist Party of India chief minister to personally join in a demonstration at Agartala, with Tripura government chief Manik Sarkar’s protesting in solidarity with the media fraternity of northeast India. But when a young television journalist from Tripura itself was beaten to death by a mob, the same chief minister remained silent. The Agartala-based journalists, while condemning the murder of Shantanu Bhowmik on Sept 20, had to demand a response from Sarkar.

In contrast, condemnations from various national and international media rights bodies were pouring against the brutal murder of Shantanu, 29, who used to work for an Agartala based Bengali-language cable news channel Din-Raat (meaning day & night). A series of demonstrations were organised by various Indian media bodies across the country demanding justice for Shantanu.

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On the fateful day, Shantanu went to cover an Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) protest against the ruling communist party and it turned violent. Claimed to have supports from the tribal population of Tripura, the IPFT maintains its demand for a separate homeland.

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Police officers escort one of the four convicts in the gang rape of a photojournalist outside a prison to be taken to a court in Mumbai, India. Source: AP

Shantanu started shooting as violence broke out with communist-aligned protesters on his mobile phone, as his lens-man avoided the professional camera for fear of abusive reactions from the agitators. As Shantanu started capturing the visuals of IPFT members attacking their opposition and police and damaging vehicles on the roadside too, he was asked to stop recording.

The protesters later chased him, wanting to take his smartphone. Some attacked him with sticks, rods and sharp items. Blood soaked Shantanu was pulled from the crowd by police and sent to hospital, but was dead on arrival. His phone was not found at the scene of his murder and it is still missing, the state police chief Akhil Kumar Shukla recently admitted.

Along with local media bodies, various international forums like the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ),  Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the murder.

They unanimously asked the Tripura government to go for a thorough investigation into Shantanu’s death and simultaneously ensure safety to all working journalists.

All influential media bodies of the country like the Editors’ Guild of India, Indian Newspaper Society, Broadcast Editors’ Association, Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps and journalist unions strongly condemned the murder of Shantanu and urged Sarkar’s government help deliver justice.

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Source: Committee to Protect Journalists

Even the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, took note of Shantanu’s killing and sought an inquiry from the Tripura government. All media bodies of northeast India demonstrated in protest against his murder and demanded a high level probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

They also urged the Union government in New Delhi to formulate a national action plan for delivering timely justice to the families of journalists who are victims of murder.

Killings of media practitioners in 2017 began with Hari Prakash (killed on Jan 2) and continued with the murders of Brajesh Kumar Singh (Jan 3), Shyam Sharma (May 15), Kamlesh Jain (May 31), Surender Singh Rana (July 29), Gauri (Sept 5), Shantanu (Sept 20), KJ Singh (Sept 23) and most recently, Rajesh Mishra (Oct 21).

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India is ranked 136th among 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index (2017) and it is just ahead of troubled neighbours like Pakistan (139th), Sri Lanka (141) and Bangladesh (146). Norway tops the list of media freedom index, where one party-ruled North Korea (180) is placed at its bottom. India’s other neighbours namely Bhutan (84), Nepal (100), Maldives (117), Afghanistan (120) and Myanmar (131) ensure greater press freedom.

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Protest over Gauri’s murder in Mumbai, India, in October 2017. Source: M A Khalid/ Twitter

The nation lost six journalists to assailants in 2016, which was preceded by five cases in 2015. It witnessed murders of two scribes in 2014, but the year 2013 reported as many as 11 journalists murdered including three Agartala-based media employees Sujit Bhattacharya (proofreader), Ranjit Chowdhury (manager) and Balaram Ghosh (driver), who were stabbed to death at the office of Tripura’s Bengali newspaper Dainik Ganadoot.

Assam – in northeast India – alone contributed a major share of these journo victims. It needs to be mentioned the trouble-torn state has lost more than 30 editor-journalist-correspondents in the last three decades. The state, which publishes over 25 morning daily newspapers and supports many satellite news channels, witnessed more journalist murders on average than any other state in the country – largely as the result of militant insurgency and other forces of political unrest.

India may be the land of Mahatma Gandhi, but it is failing in providing justice for slain journalists.