Black Day for Media: Two Journalists Killed in Bihar, One Crushed by Truck in MP

For the past two years, India has ranked among the countries with the highest number of journalist deaths.

New Delhi: For investigating the sand mafia and trying to expose one of the main culprits behind the rot of corruption in Madhya Pradesh, journalist Sandeep Sharma paid with his life early Monday morning.

The horrific scene where the 35-year-old News World channel stringer was crushed under a truck while riding a two-wheeler was caught on CCTV camera. In the video, the two-wheeler simply vanishes under the wheels of a truck moving aggressively on a road in Bhind district, around 500 km from the state capital Bhopal.

Sharma, who has previously conducted two sting operations on police officers, had sought police protection citing a threat to his life. In the letter seeking police protection, Sharma had accused a sub-divisional police officer (SDOP) of being hand-in-glove with those engaged in illegal sand mining, reported the Indian Express.

What’s more, the incident reportedly took place just a few metres from a police station.

According to new reports, an offence under Section 304A (causing death by negligence) has been registered. Bhind SP Prashant Khare said that the truck has been seized and that the police have formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the incident. The driver has yet to be located.

This incident came on the back of two journalists being killed in Bihar’s Bhojpur district after an SUV owned by a local politician hit the motorcycle they were on. PTI reported that Navin Nishchal and Vijay Singh, who worked for Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, were killed on the spot.

Nishchal’s brother Rajesh Nishchal has filed a police complaint against former panchayat leader Ahmed Ali, who is also known as Harsu, and his son Dabloo. The vehicle reportedly belonged to Ali, who is now absconding, NDTV reported. Rajesh Nishchal alleged that Ali decided to kill his brother because of a dispute between the two, the police said.

According to NDTV, the journalists had reportedly had an argument with the village chief and his family. After the incident, they allegedly ran away. A crowd of locals gathered at the spot and set fire to the vehicle. The Hindu reported of how the villagers said that the incident “smacks of a well-hatched conspiracy to murder the journalists”.

No country for journalists

For the past two years, India has ranked among the countries with the highest number of journalist deaths.

In 2016, the International Federation of Journalists listed India as the eighth most dangerous country for journalists.

Even though most journalists do largely take the necessary measures to protect themselves and constantly remind themselves that no story is worth dying for, the perpetrators of such attacks have usually one goal in mind: to kill the story.

Hit jobs are not uncommon. The murder of Gauri Lankesh, who was a fearless critic of the rising Hindutva forces in the country and the editor of the weekly Lankesh Patrike, in September 2017 in Bangalore had all the hallmarks of a hit job. Shot outside her home, her death sparked protests across the country.

At the time, Reporters Without Borders said, “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

In an editorial published after her murder, The Wire wrote, “Journalists in India have long valued their independence, but of late, that one-time feistiness has morphed into a coziness with the powers that be. Some journalists are blatant about their support for the government, others, while pretending neutrality and equidistance, are more subtle. Either way, the space for independent journalism – which does its job without fear or favour and seeks to serve only the reader/viewer – is rapidly shrinking. How dangerous the profession is can be gauged from the fact that five journalists were killed in India in 2016; the same year, India dropped three places to 136 in the global Freedom of the Press index.”

Lankesh’s wasn’t the only death in 2017 – 28-year-old Santanu Bhowmik who worked for a local channel, Din Raat, in Tripura, was killed while covering a clash between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the ruling CPI(M)’s tribal wing, Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad (TRUGP), in western Tripura’s Mandai area.

According to police, Bhowmik was hit from behind and abducted. He was later found with fatal stab injuries and though he was rushed to a hospital, he could not be saved.

Another reported, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, a senior journalist with Syandan Patrika, was also shot dead just weeks later by a Tripura State Rifles trooper during an altercation in Bodhjung Nagar in Tripura.

In fact, according to the Hoot‘s ‘India Freedom Report: Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 2017’, last year was a violent year for India’s journalists. The numbers speak for themselves – 11 journalists were murdered, there were 46 cases of attacks and 27 cases of police action including arrest and cases filed.

Many journalists were also injured during the violence following the arrest of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Singh in August 2017. Television vans were set on fire and reporters and camera persons were injured.

In 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while expressing deep concern and dismay in a report at the work-related murder of 27 journalists in India since 1992, had underlined that “more than half of those killed reported regularly on corruption”.

P. Sainath, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India, wrote the foreword for the report, which included the following statement:

“Rural and small-town journalists are at greater risk of being killed in retaliation for their work than those in the big cities but, as this report shows, factors such as a journalist’s location, outlet, level in the profession’s hierarchy, and social background add to that risk. The language a reporter writes in and, most importantly, what they are writing about –especially if it challenges the powerful – increase the vulnerability.”

If not resorting to violence and outright murder, those with their agenda against press freedom make a beeline for filing defamation suits, such as the civil defamation case that The Wire was slapped with over the story ‘The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah‘ which alleged a sudden spike in revenues of the company owned by BJP president Amit Shah’s son the year after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.

In 2017, the Hoot report said, Maharashtra had the highest incidence of defamation with 19 cases. Five of these were filed by film and TV personalities and one by former Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chief Pahlaj Nihalani. The Adani group filed a defamation case against Sameeksha Trust that publishes the journal Economic and Political Weekly, its editor and other journalists. The Mumbai police filed two cases – one against a journalist who allegedly showed them in poor light, and another against an ethical hacker who had, in 2016, claimed that senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse was in touch with Dawood Ibrahim.