New Delhi: Setting the tone for the two-day “National Convention Against Assault on Journalists”, being held at the Constitution Club of India in the national capital, noted multi-lingual actor Prakash Raj on Saturday claimed that what worried him these days was “how media houses are bought, how people are brain washed, fake/paid news are being spread”.
Speaking during the inaugural session of the convention, he admitted that he felt he was being “misguided by journalists”.
A close friend of activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was gunned down by right-wing assailants in September 2017, Raj began his speech by reciting a Malayalam poem in her memory as also those of academic M.M. Kalburgi and rationalist and progressive thinker Narendra Dabholkar.
Elaborating on how the media has been bought and influenced, the actor, who had come out openly against the BJP in the run up to the Karnataka assembly elections – where he had called the party ruling at the Centre a “cancer” and said he would feel “unsafe” if it would come to power in the state – said: “There are people who write/speak against me, and also people who were silent and did not report my press briefings. Both are being paid.”
He said what worried him was the way in which the media was being bought in an organised manner. “People are bought to hate someone,” the actor said, demanding that journalists should remain steadfast when it comes to reporting the truth.
‘Criticism of ruling party not being reported’
During the Karnataka elections, he said, it were the journalists from regional media who were attacked more and not from the national media. He also averred that “recently media owners and editors from Tamil Nadu had a secret meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ” to highlight how a bigger game is being played out.
However, Raj said he was still hopeful. “There are some journalists who can’t be bought. We will pursue, continue to question without fear and then we will see light at the end of the tunnel,” he declared.
‘Journalists need to remain united’
Lalit Surjan, senior journalist and editor-in chief of Desh Bandhu, said the need of the hour was for journalists to unite. “Earlier there was unity among journalists and that made the government wary. But now all attempts are being made through new media organisations so that people stop trusting the media,” he charged.
Cautioning against those financing the media houses determining the content of the channels, Surjan suggested “devolution of ownership” as a means of curbing paid news.
‘Political coverage remains most dangerous’
During the session on “murder and physical assault”, correspondent Kunal Majumdar for the Committee to Protect Journalists spoke about how 88% of journalists killed across the world were local reporters. He also insisted that the most dangerous beat for them remained politics, and not war or human rights.
The meeting also remembered the three journalists who lost their lives in India in the line of duty during the past year because they showed courage to speak and write the inconvenient truth.
The convention recalled how Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, was gunned down by assailants outside his office in Srinagar in June this year. The Committee Against Assault on Journalists also released its first first postcard on the national convention against assault on journalists featuring an image of Bukhari.
Similarly, it mentioned Navin Nischal, a stringer for Hindi-language daily Dainik Bhaskar who was killed in March 2018 when an SUV ran him over in Arrah in Bihar, and Sandeep Sharma, a reporter for the local News World television channel in Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh who was killed on March 26, 2018.
In all, it was mentioned that while during the year, 42 journalists have been killed across the globe, three of them were killed in India.
48 journalists have been killed in India since 1992
Overall, 48 journalists have been killed in the country between 1992 and 2018 out of the 1,321 scribes killed worldwide during the same period.
Several family members of journalists who have died in the line of duty also shared stories of how the killers of their loved ones still roam free.
One such narrative came from Ganga Devi, mother of Devendra Patwal, a journalist killed in Uttarakhand. “My son kept saying that ‘I’m under threat’, but no one listened,” she said.
Asha Ranjan narrated a similar story. The wife of crime reporter Rajdeo Ranjan, who twice been attacked by Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Mohammad Shahbuddin and was subsequently shot dead by three unidentified persons on May 13, 2016, justice has been evasive as the trial has yet to begin.
“Ranjan was attacked twice earlier due to his journalism by RJD leader Mohammad Shahbuddin against whom the chargesheet has been filed in the murder case,” said Asha, adding that it has been two years since the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation. However, the mother of two minor children, wondered why the trial has still not started.
She also lamented the manner in which the accused has been having it easy. “Shahbuddin got bail in this case and I had to appeal in the Supreme Court to get it cancelled and fearing his influence in Bihar jails also to transfer him to Tihar Jail,” she said.
Pointing out how her family still faced a grave threat, she added: “Who will take care of my family now? I had told him (Ranjan) several times to remain careful and safe. But he did not listen to me. I need justice and not just monetary compensation.”
The session on “Trolls, Threats and Intimidation” had senior journalist Ravish Kumar of NDTV speak about how different mechanisms are used to silence and intimidate the media.
Journalist Neha Dixit, who had in February this year done an explosive story on how the encounter killings in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh showed a disturbing trend, spoke about how she was threatened by UP Police personnel after her story appeared in The Wire. Her story had also reflected on how Muslims were being persecuted through the use of the National Security Act.
‘Defamation used as a tool to harass and torture’
Another well-known journalist Nikhil Wagle accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of poisoning the polity of the nation. He also spoke about how journalists working in rural areas and freelance journalists remained more vulnerable to attacks.
“Defamation is used as a tool to harass and torture journalists. It is an abuse of criminal law. They make us go to remote districts where such cases are filed to dissuade us from continuing our reporting work,” he said.
However, Wagle insisted that the profession was here to stay. “If they kill one journalist, another will be born.”
‘Media has become pro-nationalistic, propagandist entity’
Earlier on the eve of the convention, the Committee Against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ) released the PDF version of around 200 cases related to killings, threats and fabricated cases against journalists in India between January 2010 and June 2018.
On the objective behind the meet, the CAAJ noted that “in the last few years, Indian media has shifted its role from being a watchdog keeping the government in check to a ‘pro-nationalistic’ and `propagandist entity’.”
Moreover, it said “the increase in the attacks on journalists in the past few years have further shrunken the already small percentage of factually correct, critical and analytically unbiased opinions and news reports.”
“Gauri Lankesh’s murder and the increase in online threats using the same as an example adds another variable to the equation complicating the situation of freedom of press in India. The blatant and outrageous way in which Gauri’s murder is worn as a badge of honour by Hindu nationalists exhibit the surreal implicit legitimacy they believe to have acquired due to the lack of strong political backlash,” it added.