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26 September, 2017

Grave threat to free media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India is turning out to be an increasingly dangerous place for journalists. Even as a wave of protests over the gruesome murder of Gauri Lankesh, a gutsy journalist, at Bangalore early this month was sweeping the country, two more were done to death, one in Tripura and the other in Punjab.

Gauri Lankesh, a bilingual journalist who edited a Kannada weekly which bore her name and wrote for English publications, was shot dead at her residence on Sept.5. The killers remain unidentified.

Shantanu Bhowmik, a reporter of Din-Raat, a television channel, was beaten to death while recording a clash between the police and workers of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) at Mandai in Tripura in the northeast. Police made two arrests the same day.

Karan Jeet Singh, 66, a veteran journalist who was working for online media after quitting mainstream publications, was found dead in his house at Mohali in Punjab with his throat slit and several stab injuries on his body. The unknown assailants also strangled to death his 92-year-old mother.

The three journalists are believed to have been silenced by groups annoyed by their professional work.

Gauri Lankesh was a trenchant critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva plank. The needle of suspicion, therefore, pointed to groups associated with its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. She was killed in circumstances similar to those attending the unresolved murder of Narenra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare of Maharashtra and MM Kalburgi of Karnataka, all of them scholars whose writings had angered the Hindutva camp.

Pro-RSS cyber campaigners sought to deflect suspicion away from the Hindutva elements by drawing attention to Gauri Lankesh’s writings critical of Karnataka’s Congress government and her role in persuading a group of Naxalites to abandon the path of violence.

The Tripura police said IPFT men might have targeted Bhowmik as he was a member of the CPI(M).

KJ Singh’s assailants took away his car and a television set but the Punjab police ruled out theft as the motive of the crime since they had left other valuables behind.

The number of media persons killed since 2014 now stands at 13. With attacks on the rise and authorities failing to bring the culprits to book the safety of journalists and the state of press freedom have emerged as matters of grave concern.

In a report released early this year the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had said 42 journalists were killed in India in the last 25 years. This was the fourth highest number of murder of journalists for reasons connected with their work, after Mexico and Russia (38 each) and Brazil (37).

Parliament was told last July that the National Crime Records Bureau, which began collating data relating to attacks on journalists in 2014, had reported 142 instances of assault during two years and 73 persons were arrested in connection with them.

Three large Hindi-speaking states accounted for most of the cases: Uttar Pradesh 64, Madhya Pradesh 26, Bihar 22. Madhya Pradesh accounted for 42 of the 73 arrests.

It is rare that journalists working for the large English-language newspapers, who know which side of the bread is buttered, are targeted. Most of the victims are low-paid reporters working for the regional media. For this reason the attacks did not attract national attention until recently. 

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed India at the 136th position among 180 countries. Outlining the situation in the country, it said, “Journalists are increasingly the target of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

The government dismissed the RWB report, saying “it does not portray a proper and comprehensive picture of freedom of the press in India”.

The recent cases of attacks on journalists have to be viewed against the growing climate of intolerance and the attempts by the ruling Establishment to emasculate the media.

According to Sohini Chattopadhyay, a columnist, what is going on is not just murder of journalists but murder of journalism itself. She writes: “The attacks are relentless – an editor fired here, a legal notice there, a TV show cancelled abruptly, a blackout of a TV channel. The majority of legacy media outlets, owned by corporate entities, have aligned themselves to toe the government line.”

Most of the journalists who came under attack were covering politics and corruption. The state’s poor record in handling cases of attacks on media persons contributes directly to the impunity with which those who dislike a free press operate. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 26, 2017.

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