New Delhi: Several acts of serious violence against journalists in the past week have once again fortified South Asia’s position as one of the most unsafe regions for the media in the world. Various incidents over the past month and year have also shown that the tools of oppression being deployed by governments and terror groups alike against journalists have also increased – from surveillance to trolling on social media, journalists now openly receive threats and are even targeted in bombings and shootings.
Last year on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) had released a report titled “New Fronts, Brave Voices: Press Freedom in South Asia 2016-17” which documented the “deteriorating press freedom situation, media rights issues, and national and regional activities to empower journalists to confront the challenges relating to press freedom”.
The report had then pointed out how 19 journalists, bloggers and media workers were killed during the period under review (May 2016 to April 2017) with Afghanistan, that recorded eight killings, continuing to be one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.
It had also highlighted how the killings of Pakistani journalism student Mashal Khan, who was bludgeoned to death in a mob attack on unfounded allegations of posting blasphemous content online, and Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed, who was brutally stabbed to death, were indicators of a “worsening trend for the media”.
Afghanistan still the most unsafe
Exactly a year later, these words can be deemed prophetic. The past week has once again seen extreme violence against journalists. While Afghanistan is leading this notorious list once again, Pakistan, the Maldives and even India have seen attacks of all kinds on journalists.
In a most gruesome reminder of how the region is teetering on the edge as fundamentalism and terrorism continue to deepen their hold, 10 journalists were killed in a single day in Afghanistan on April 30. While one of them, Ahmed Shah, a reporter for British Broadcasting Corporation was shot dead in Khost province, all the others were targeted in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul.
Shah was shot dead by two unknown armed men riding on a motorcycle while he was on his way home at around 4 pm. With no group taking responsibility for the attack, the reason behind his killing is not immediately known. A statement from BBC World Service said: “Ahmad Shah was 29. He had worked for the BBC Afghan service for more than a year and had already established himself as a highly capable journalist who was a respected and popular member of the team. This is a devastating loss.”
IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger described the attack where 10 journalists died as the “the deadliest day for journalism in the country”. The organisation demanded urgent action from the authorities to arrest and punish the killers. “The reigning impunity for crimes against journalists and the government’s lack of concrete action to protect journalists are key causes of increased violence against journalists in Afghanistan,” it said.
Only four days prior to these killings, two unknown gunmen had shot dead Kabul News TV journalist Abdul Manan Arghand at Yarana Market on the outskirts of Kandahar city. The 31-year-old had been in his car when two gunmen on a motorbike intercepted him and opened fire, killing him on the spot. He had been receiving threats for a while and had also notified security agencies.
Arghand, who had been working as a journalist for 13 years and was associated with private TV station Kabul News and Chinese news agency, Xinhua, was the first journalist to be killed in Afghanistan in 2018. In 2017, the country lost 12 journalists and media staff in all.
Incidentally, in the case of war-torn Afghanistan, the annual “Freedom of the Press 2017” report by US-based Freedom House had last year also noted that a large number of journalists have been fleeing the country to Europe to “find both safety and more job opportunities…”
Moreover, it added that “the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate, with a Taliban bombing that killed seven Tolo TV employees”. The report had also cautioned that “the exodus of journalists could deal a serious blow to the survival of democracy in Afghanistan, and both the government and the international community will need to do more to ensure that Afghan reporters can operate freely and safely.”
But as the recent attack on 10 journalists show, things are still not looking up for journalists in Afghanistan.
India too remains unsafe for journalists
When it came to crimes involving bodily harm, India figured high on that list among South Asian countries.
On April 17, two masked men on a motorcycle threw a ‘petrol bomb’ on the wall of the house of Patricia Mukhim, the editor of the Shillong Times, in Umpling area of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.
Though no one was injured, it has been seen as an attempt to intimidate the editor. Mukhim said she heard an explosion and saw flames rising outside her home and found the wall below her bedroom window charred. She wrote on Facebook: “Those who did this ugly deed need to be arrested. I heard the explosion and saw the flames rising. It’s a terrible feeling.”
A few months ago, Mukhim also allegedly received death threats on Facebook. She had said that someone unhappy with her editorials might have tried to silence her as she has written extensively on issues such as unregulated mining and the culture of violence that exists alongside this trade.
Prior to this, in March, three journalists were killed within a period of 24 hours in different parts of India. Naveen Nishchal from Dainik Bhaskar and Vijay Singh, who worked for a Hindi magazine, were killed on March 25 when the motorcycle they were riding was hit by a car driven by a village headman who had several criminal cases against him in Bihar. Nishal’s family later claimed that he had received threats just days before the incident.
The very next day, Sandeep Sharma, an investigative journalist in Madhya Pradesh, was crushed by a truck. Sharma, who had done two “sting” investigations for a television channel on sand mafia in the region, was seen in CCTV footage riding his bike when the truck swerved suddenly and hit him before running him over.
Though Sharma had also sough police protection, IFJ said, Shailendra Singh Khushwaha, an officer at the Bhind police station had confirmed that no protection had been provided to him.
Journalist pays with life for questioning new tax in Pakistan
Like India, Pakistan too has witnessed a large number of attacks on its journalists in the past year, the most recent being on Zeeshan Ashraf Butt, who was shot dead on March 27, making him the second journalist to be killed there this year. The 29-year-old journalist with Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt was murdered while he was in Begowala on a personal visit.
However, his family alleges that he had gone to the Union Council office upon some complaints from the local shopkeepers about a new tax imposed by the council chairman. They charged that angered by his questions, the chairman had opened fire on him.
Geo News blocked by cable operators under duress
The attacks on freedom of press also continued unabated in Pakistan where a news channel, Geo News, was blocked by cable operators in most parts of the country. IFJ said in its monthly report for April that the move is “widely seen as being forced by the military as it flexes its authority over civilian institutions”.
In the first week of March, it said, Geo News was shut down in cantonment areas across the country and residential neighbourhoods that were administered by the military. The report said “the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has insisted that it is not behind the move, and put out a notice for cable operators not to disrupt Geo’s transmissions”.
Politics inspired attacks on journalists in Maldives
On May 1, the IFJ said an opposition-aligned television station in Maldives alleged that cadres of a political party offered money to a local gang to stab Raajje TV’s chief operation officer Hussain Fiyaz Moosa in March 2018.
The group said “Raajje TV on April 26 cited credible information claiming that people connected to a political party offered MVR140,000 (USD 9,000) to a local gang in presence of two politicians to physically harm Moosa. The station said that it was one of the lowest, scariest, most dangerous and un-Islamic acts carried out by anyone to undermine the station.”
Since Raajje TV has in the past too been a target of attack, threats and fines due to its content, and the journalists employed have been subjected to harassment and arrest, the IFJ while seeking a “swift investigation” noted that “Maldives has gone on a downward slide in press freedom and incidents like these, if unchecked, will put critical voices and democracy itself a danger.”
The monthly report of IFJ also highlighted how the authorities in Maldives were continuing with their crackdown on journalists.
It said the police arrested senior video journalist Mohamed Wisam and head of programmes Amir Saleem with court orders on March 16 after the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) leaders accused Raajje TV of producing and uploading a YouTube video that had shown three masked people in police uniform saying that they would join the opposition rally.
On March 18, the Criminal Court remanded Wisam and Saleem for 10 days in custody. They were released on bail on March 27 after the police failed to produce any proof in court.
IFJ also noted that journalist Mohamed Fazeen was arrested on allegations of defying police orders during the opposition parties’ protest demonstrations in Male. He was handcuffed and taken into custody by traffic police and it was only after more than 24 hours in detention that he was released on March 17.
Mob threatens channel staff in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka too, journalists have faced attacks and threats in the recent past. Early in April, a mob shouted slogans and set off firecrackers at the main gate of the Sirasa TV in Colombo to protest against the channel’s coverage of the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe which was defeated in the parliament.
In its monthly report, IFJ said since the mob had gathered at the main gate, the media staff were unable to exit the office complex. It was only when the police dispersed the mob that the staff were able to leave.
Journalists on duty suffer police highhandedness
The highhanded approach of authorities towards journalists performing their duties has also been flagged by IFJ in its monthly report for April. In Delhi, it said, the police assaulted two women journalists and snatched away the camera of one while they were covering the demonstration organised by students and teachers of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India on March 23 to protest against a number of university policies, and also against alleged sexual harassment by a professor.
Similarly, the IFJ said a photojournalist, Biplab Mondal, was forcibly undressed, illegally confined and beaten while other journalists and photojournalists were attacked in Alipore, Kolkata in West Bengal on April 9 while they were covering the filing of nomination papers for the polls to the local bodies.
It said other journalists, including ETV’s Manas Chattopadhyay, were also attacked and forced to delete pictures from their mobile phones. Chattopadhyay had also sustained injuries on his right hand in the attack.
Defamation laws being used to punish criticism in media
The Freedom House report had also noted that “governments and powerful individuals in many Asian countries used defamation laws and related criminal provisions to punish criticism in the media during 2016, devoting greater attention to unfavourable commentary on social media in particular. The rising pressure on such alternative platforms was troubling given the shortage of independent reporting from the mainstream press in these countries.”
In this regard, the report had said that “a marked increase in defamation cases was reported in Myanmar under the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)”. It said “journalists and others faced prosecution and imprisonment under antiquated penal code provisions as well as a 2013 Telecommunications Law covering online content. Activists seeking a revision of the law found that at least 38 cases were filed under its provisions during 2016, compared with seven from 2013 to 2015. The increased use of the law against government critics and even ordinary social media users called into question the NLD’s commitment to freedom of expression.”
Sweeping cyber, IT laws brought in to curb dissent
Among the other countries in the region, it noted that even as prosecutions under existing laws continued across the region, some countries adopted new measures to crack down on critical material. “The Maldives passed a sweeping law that criminalised defamation and can also be used to force journalists to reveal their sources. Pakistan adopted a cybercrime law that grants the Telecommunications Authority broad discretion to block or remove virtually any content based on vague criteria such as “public order” and “the interest of the glory of Islam”, the Freedom House report had said.
The IFJ report released last year had also highlighted how press freedom continues to be adversely impacted by “internet shutdowns in South Asia, the world’s leading region on virtual curfews; and online harassment, especially that of female journalists along with special reports on impunity, and gender issues”.
‘Restrictions on internet threaten freedom of expression online’
It had stated that “the growing restrictions on the internet access have threatened the freedom of expression online as the governments continue to find new ways to put curbs; and risks of digital insecurity for journalists is at an all-time high.”
In this regard, the report had mentioned how Pakistan, Maldives and Nepal have all introduced repressive laws restricting freedom of expression whereas Bangladesh continue to step ahead with mass surveillance and India sporadically enforces internet shutdowns in the name of ‘national security’. “While the overall situation looks bad, South Asia is also making progress and has recorded some positive steps. Bangladesh had a win against impunity, convicting the killer of photojournalist Aftab Ahmed, and Sri Lanka continues on its reform path with the enactment of Right to Information Act,” the report had said.
India too tried to form controversial committee to regulate online content
A monthly report by IFJ also noted that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry of India on April 4 formed a committee to devise rules to modulate news portals and media websites and that happened just a day after the Centre recalled its directive regarding fake news after criticism.
According to the ministry’s letter, it said, the 10-member committee included secretaries of the ministries of information and broadcasting, electronics and information technology as well as home. It also comprised secretaries from the department of legal affairs and department of industrial policy and promotion as members.
‘Journalism fighting for its very existence’
The leading group of journalists had therefore noted that around South Asia “journalism is fighting for its very existence and survival on numerous old and new fronts.”
A serious allegation of online abuse and harassment was also reported from India recently when investigative journalist Rana Ayyub filed a criminal complaint at the Saket police station in New Delhi on April 26, alleging that she has been subjected of relentless doxing, online abuse and violent threats, including threats to her life.
“Ayyub was projected as a defender of child rapists in a tweet posted on a fake account with name of the prominent TV channel on April 22. Following the tweet, Ayyub, the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, a book about the 2002 Gujarat riots, that implicates BJP top leaders for the riots, received numerous hate-filled, sexually explicit and threatening messages on her Facebook and Twitter. It was followed by a fake video with morphed images that became viral and triggered more threats of gang-rape,” the IFJ said.
It added that the incident where fake accounts were used against her shows the level of threats that female journalists face online and the lack of mechanisms to stop such harassment.
In her complaint Ayyub had said: “I couldn’t sleep for three nights. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was numb. My parents called me to see if I was OK. The trolls posted my phone number, the address of my house online. If this is the depth of their hatred, what will stop them from coming into my house as a mob and kill me?”
The journalist further said: “I’ve been trolled before, but I have never faced anything like this. I don’t know what else I have to fear after this… I’m repeatedly telling the state that I’m under attack and I fear for my safety. Will they take action only after something happen?”
Stating that “Ayyub had previously faced online harassment and trolling, especially from the supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” IFJ had demanded swift and urgent action from the authorities to protect her from further harassment.