India's Media Houses Are Failing the Very Journalists That Serve Them

In the absence of a countrywide legislation to protect journalists, the ones that are not on the pay-roll are often made to suffer.

Note: This article first appeared on April 4, 2018 and is being republished on November 16, 2018, National Press Day.

Attacks on journalists once again made headlines last fortnight. Sandeep Sharma, a journalist in Bhopal, was killed in an accident that smacked of a sinister plot to silence him. Separately, two Bihar journalists were mowed down by a speeding SUV under mysterious circumstances. In New Delhi, journalists were roughed up by the police while covering protests by students from Jawaharlal Nehru University. One journalist accused a police officer of molesting her, while another was beaten up and had her camera snatched.

Attempts to silence the media should not come as a surprise in the world’s largest democracy, which, according to Reporters Without Borders, ranks a low 136 among 180 countries when it comes to press freedom. The annual press freedom index from the Paris-based watchdog is a measure of the freedom available to pursue unbiased journalism. India has been slipping badly on that score.

“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” Reporters Without Borders said in its last report. “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” the report added.

Another media watchdog, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), portrays a grim picture of the Indian media. Not every killing, such as that of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru last year, hits the headlines and creates outrage in the entire nation. But CPJ points out that some 30 journalists have been murdered in India between 1992 and 2016. Worse still, India has the infamy of being bracketed with countries such as Somalia, Syria, Nigeria and Pakistan for having a terrible impunity record. According to the CPJ, some 16 journalists were murdered in the country between September 2007 and August 2017 with complete impunity. No one was punished.

The media in India is evidently under siege from various quarters, ranging from politicians to police and local adversaries who often take to violence to silence critics. What, however, is seldom mentioned is that journalists in this country are also being failed by the very media houses they serve.

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According to CPJ, some 30 journalists have been murdered in India between 1992 and 2016. Credit: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

In all likelihood, Sharma, the Bhopal journalist, was killed by the sand mafia against whom he had carried out a sting for the television channel he worked for. CCTV footage shows a truck inexplicably swerving to the left and running over a motorbike-borne Sharma, killing him instantly. Sharma incidentally had sought police protection, complaining of a threat to his life, but got no help.

Ditto with Navin Nischal and Vijay Sharma, the two Bihar journalists knocked down by a speeding SUV on the Ara-Sasaram highway. Villagers say their deaths were plain murder. Stoking their suspicion is the fact that the vehicle that knocked the duo down was being driven by the husband of a former village head with whom they had an altercation recently.

But going by past records, these deaths too will go in vain. No lessons will be learnt and it is unlikely that journalists in India will be any less insecure in the future than they are now. Media owners have divergent interests that rarely feature journalists’ welfare and safety.

For instance, Sharma was a stringer for a local channel minus any regular salary. He was paid for his work that entailed taking risks. When the sand mafia targeted him, Sharma was left alone and vulnerable without any institutional support. He died a lonely death.

Sharma’s plight is shared by a majority of journalists in the countryside who are not as privileged as their colleagues based in metropolitan centres like New Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru. Their exploitation is phenomenal.

One big newspaper group, which was recently in the news for showing its editor the door reportedly under political pressure, has virtually carpet-bombed Uttar Pradesh with journalists for its Hindi variant. The paper boasts of hundreds of reporters across the state, none of whom are paid a salary. Earlier, their ID cards identified them as stringers. But since stringers also attract provisions of the journalist wage board Act and can demand amenities, their IDs now describe them simply as ‘source’.

As a source, each is paid Rs 500 a month and required to collect both advertisements and news. Since the money they are paid is measly, many fall back on arm-twisting local officials and contractors to give advertisements that earn them a commission. The news written by them is often with an eye on advertisements.

Both journalists and journalism are, therefore, made to suffer. There is no countrywide legislation to protect journalists, though Maharashtra last year brought in such a law stipulating a jail term of up to three years for anyone convicted of physical violence against any media person.

Ironically, a similar provision passed in the state way back in 2009 to protect doctors has not resulted in any convictions yet. Either the police remain ignorant or court delays are standing in the way of its enforcement. There are no laws either to govern the professional conduct of journalists. In the absence of any, there is a huge grey area that many sides, including media houses, exploit. Reduced to virtual penury, journalists are left without much of a voice.

In more ways than one, journalism in this country is an unorganised sector. An overwhelming majority of journalists in the country are stringers and part-timers. By virtue of being locals, they are better grounded and enjoy deeper insights into issues and events. But they are also the ones who are impoverished and imperiled. Owners exploit them and thugs target them. Journalist bodies that ought to have helped have also failed them.

Press clubs across the country have reduced themselves to no more than watering holes. Watchdog bodies such as the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority lack punitive powers and are toothless tigers. The Editors Guild of India also has its limitations: it can censure but cannot ensure that its will is carried out. Left to fend for themselves, Indian journalists might be fighting a losing battle.

Ruben Banerjee is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Until recently, he was the National Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times.