Silencing media through violent means signals the breakdown of a functioning democracy

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 5.13.57 PMReproduced below is an article by Raksha Kumari, “…and then they came for the journalists”, in “India: Pursuing Truth in the Face of Intolerance”, published by PEN International, with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency:

In India today, if a journalist cannot be lured by money or scared away from a story, then the threat of intimidation – sometimes leading to violence and murder – looms large. The past few years have been bloody for some journalists and writers who took on the powerful.

Many journalists, especially in smaller towns and villages of India, enter the profession fueled purely by passion and a thirst to speak truth to power. They often have to rely on alternative ways to supplement their income, including collecting local advertising for newspapers, or doing other odd jobs to make their journalism sustainable. Many of them face immense pressure from families to give up journalism — a profession that certainly puts them in harm’s way and doesn’t guarantee a shilling in their pockets.

What compounds the crisis are the numerous incidences of violent attacks on journalists. A growing climate of intolerance in the country and the tendency among those with power to intimidate journalists has combined to make safety of journalists a critical issue. To make matters worse, the state has been sluggish in prosecuting cases, perpetuating a climate of impunity.

Coupled with the dangers of surveillance and oversharing of personal information in the age of the internet, the gap has narrowed between physical violence and virtual threats.

Silenced by Death

“From Kashmir to Kanyakumari” is a phrase commonly used in India to describe pan-Indian phenomena, applying everywhere regardless of geographic, political and language diversities. In the case of journalists being killed at point blank range, the expression sits alarmingly true.

Two journalists of international repute — Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari — were shot dead within a span of nine months. Gauri Lankesh, editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike in the southern city of Bangalore was killed by two men outside her home in September 2017. In June 2018, Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, was killed by three gunmen in front of his front in the northern town of Srinagar.

Both were targeted for their outspoken views on state repression. Both had a near cult-like following among their readers. Both were in their 50s. And both ran local newspapers in their hometowns, which had extremely limited subscriptions. Gauri Lankesh Patrike and Rising Kashmir sold merely a few thousand copies.

It was clear that it was not only their newspapers which were swaying the masses, they were. Their individual personalities, with incisive views on religion, state repression and violence were immensely in influential. Both journalists’ Twitter handles, Facebook pages and fiery speeches in public rallies and conferences were seen as a threat to the powerful. They were attacked by both the left and the right; the extreme right considered them to be too liberal and the extreme left thought they were too moderate.

Within hours of Lankesh’s murder, many supporters of Hindu nationalism praised the killing. A year on, the police have framed charges against a few suspects who are linked with extreme Hindu organisations.

Bukhari had a pivotal seat observing the Kashmir conflict – an immensely complicated, long-drawn conflict with local and international stakeholders. He tried to maintain a neutral stance in a highly politicised situation in one of the world’s most militarised zones. He could not please every side. His killers have not been identified, though police suspect some Kashmiri separatist militant groups.

The murders of Lankesh and Bukhari shocked India. But less high pro le killings of journalists occur with even greater frequency. For instance, three journalists were killed within a span of 24 hours in March 2018.

In the remote Bhojpur district of the eastern state of Bihar, two journalists, Navin Nishchal and Vijay Singh, who worked for Dainik Bhaskar, a leading Hindi newspaper, were run over by a sports utility vehicle which belonged to a local political leader. The two had covered a Hindu festival and had got into an argument with the said leader the night they were killed.

These killings were closely followed by that of Sandeep Sharma, a reporter with a local news channel, who was working on an illegal sand mining story in Central India’s Bhind district, whose motorbike was hit by a dumper truck and he was killed. A CCTV camera captured the footage of his motorbike being crushed by a truck. This was circulated widely among local journalists, inciting fear among them.

Police violence against journalists

Police have used sticks and tear gas to defuse crowds and attack journalists in many parts of India. In a recent case, in July 2018, Ahmedabad police hit Pravin Indrekar, a photojournalist for the Mumbai-based DNA newspaper, with sticks and con scated his camera when he tried to photograph a police crackdown in the Chharanagar area of the city. According to the First Information Report led after the incident, police charged Indrekar on 11 counts including rioting, looting, and attacking the police. Over 150 journalists attended a protest organised by the Mumbai Press Club in support of Indrekar.

In March 2018, a few dozen journalists gathered outside the Delhi police headquarters to protest against police attacks on two women journalists who were covering a march by the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Delhi Police allegedly roughed up and beat the journalists, seized their cameras and injured many reporters. Anushree Fadnavis, a woman photojournalist with the English-language daily Hindustan Times who was allegedly attacked by the police, lodged a complaint. Another reporter alleged that a Station House O cer (SHO) molested her while she was covering the same protest-march by the students.

In the north-eastern state of Assam, at least seven journalists were injured in March 2018 when police beat them with batons as they tried to cover a student demonstration. Emmy C Lawbei, a Mizo journalist with News18, captured the attack on video, which described the place as looking ‘like a war zone’.

Other incidents of attacks against journalist abound: On 29 July 2018, in Punjab’s Jalalabad town, Sandeep Kumar and Neeraj Bali, two reporters from the Punjabi-language television station News18 Punjabi, were attacked. The men believe they were targeted for their reportage on illegal sand mining.

In August 2018, Lucknow police forcibly entered the home of a senior Urdu journalist, Mohammad Sahid Khan, alleged that he was a terrorist and forcefully took pictures of him and his family. The police apologised to Khan after several other journalists took the matter up with senior bureaucrats in the state.

Silencing the media through violent means signals the breakdown of a functioning democracy. Not only is impunity the result of weak law enforcement and criminal justice systems, but it also points to an unquestioning society that accepts and perpetuates violence. Both Lankesh and Bukhari were abused online for their views after they were killed.

When there are no checks on power, it ceases to be a democracy even in name.

Click HERE to read other articles in “India: Pursuing Truth in the Face of Intolerance”

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