Editorial: For Democracy to Survive, Attacks on Journalists Must End

Defending journalistic freedom as well as couriers of information is one of the hallmarks of any civilised and honest society.

Note: This article first appeared on November 2, 2018 and is being republished on November 16, 2018, National Press Day.

These are dangerous times to be a journalist in the line of duty in India. Like their global counterparts, Indian journalists are confronting a host of occupational hazards, grappling with daunting legal and extra-legal challenges and even risking their lives to bring information in the public domain. A culture of bullying, abusing, threatening and killing journalists is now a reality in India as in many other countries.

As the space to work freely and without fear shrinks, there is a need to reflect on this troubling situation. It is imperative for us to consider the multiple factors that have created conditions that make it dangerous to do a job that is critical in a democracy. There is an urgent need to call out the forces responsible for building up the prevailing atmosphere.

Growing intolerance of dissenting journalists has manifested itself in various forms across the nation – from censorship fiats to acts of outright physical intimidation. The escalating attacks on whistleblower journalists across India have taken a toll not just on individuals but also on journalism as a profession. The killing of several journalists over the last few years in India is a reminder that those who object to free speech – especially when it involves liberal ideas – will stop at nothing to quell those voices.

The ongoing political conflicts in different parts of the country – from Kashmir and insurgency-affected states in the Northeast to Maoist-impacted Chhattisgarh – have exposed journalists working in these contexts to grave danger. On Tuesday, October 30, Achyutanand Sahu, a cameraman employed by Doordarshan was killed in a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada region. And the list of attacked or slain journalists only grows longer as a culture of violence is normalised.

In September 2017, the country witnessed the cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh, editor of Lankesh Patrike in the city of Bengaluru. Investigations into her murder have, since then, unravelled an intricate network of armed groups which subscribe to the ideology of Hindutva. Within less than a year of Lankesh’s assassination, Shujaat Bukhari, editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir, a Srinagar-based newspaper, was gunned down by unknown assailants in the heart of the city. Bukhari, many believed, lost his life for his unwillingness to fall in with an expedient “us or them” political line.

Independence and fearless thought, usually considered to be invaluable journalistic attributes, are now becoming a serious – even dangerous – hindrance for media professionals. If journalists in prime locations and metropolitan cities are under attack, those away from media and public glare, spread out in small towns and villages, are preyed upon with far greater ease.

Last December, Naveen Gupta, a journalist with a Hindi daily was shot five times by unknown assailants in the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. The same year, on November 7, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, a journalist with a daily, Syandan Patrika, and local television channel, News Vanguard, was shot dead allegedly by Tripura State Rifles personnel. Two months prior to that incident, journalist Santanu Bhowmik was murdered in Tripura while on duty, covering an agitation by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.

Things were not much better the previous year. In 2016, a mob surrounded the house of journalist Malini Subramaniam in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. Accusing the journalist, who reports on human rights issues, of supporting Maoists, the mob attacked her home with stones, shattering the rear windows of her car. The acts of violence were accompanied by the mob chanting “Death to Malini Subramaniam.”

A report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed that 48 journalists were killed in India between 1992 and 2018. That stark statistic testifies to the ubiquity of violence, bringing home the gravity of the situation, indicating the levels of risk journalists increasingly take to just do their jobs.

Even if the agents of such acts of violence are often non-state actors, indifference and silence on the part of governing classes when confronted with such crimes, tends to be perceived as an endorsement of the violence.

That worries about the state of Indian media are legitimate is evident from the country’s low ranking in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Sans Borders. India is ranked 136th among 180 countries, just a little ahead of its neighbours Pakistan (139), Sri Lanka (141) and Bangladesh (146). The situation in India’s neighbouring countries too hardly gives any cause for optimism. According to CPJ, 60 journalists were assassinated in Pakistan and 21 in Bangladesh between 1992 and 2018.

It is against this murky background that we respond to UNESCO’s call to mark November 2 as the International Day to End the Culture of Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. The call was issued by the UNESCO at its 68th session in 2013 in remembrance of two French journalists killed in Mali that year. That between 2006 and 2017 nearly 1,010 journalists were killed and that in nine out of ten cases the killers have gotten away, is a sombre reminder of the dangers journalists have to confront in their day-to-day work.

Article 19 of the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, which defines the essence of journalism. Defending journalistic freedom, as well as couriers of information, is one of the hallmarks of any civilised and honest society. Journalists must be allowed to function in a safe environment without fear of retribution or danger to their lives. The killings and harassment must stop now for democracy to survive.