Reporters Murdered 'With Complete Impunity' in India: Committee to Protect Journalists

According to the Impunity Index, between 1992 and July 2016, 27 Indian journalists were murdered due to their work.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Expressing deep concern and dismay at the work-related murder of 27 journalists in India since 1992 and the inability of the state governments to secure a conviction in even one of them, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Monday noted that India has, for the past eight years, been a fixture on its annual Impunity Index, which “spotlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.”

Additionally, while noting that “more than half of those killed reported regularly on corruption”, CPJ urged the Centre to “bring together a group of experienced jurists, journalists, scholars, and experts specialising in issues concerning the freedom of expression to submit draft proposals for a national-level journalist safety and protection mechanism and a method to federalise crimes against free expression, which is a guaranteed right under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.”

The report, written by Sumit Galhotra, senior research associate at CPJ’s Asia programme, and Raksha Kumar, a freelance journalist, also points to the fact that most of the journalists who were killed belonged to rural areas. “The cases of Jagendra Singh, Umesh Rajput, and Akshay Singh, who died between 2011 and 2015, show how small-town journalists face greater risk in their reporting than those from larger outlets, and how India’s culture of impunity is leaving the country’s press vulnerable to threats and attacks.”

A deeper insight into this trend has been provided by P. Sainath, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India, who 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.”

Sainath also explained why those working for the national media usually escaped such a gory end, saying: “The elite sections of the national media, particularly English outlets, are better protected. There is a built-in insurance that comes with working for powerful media organisations that have access to those in government.”

Titled ‘Dangerous pursuit: In India, journalists who cover corruption may pay with their lives’, the report takes a close look at all the 27 cases.

Claiming that all these journalists were murdered “with complete impunity”, it said, “this has created a challenging environment for the press, especially small-town journalists and those reporting on corruption, who are often more vulnerable to attack and whose legitimacy is questioned when they are threatened or killed.”

What compounds the matter for these journalists, who work in the absence of any kind of protection, was “an overwhelmed justice system and lack of media solidarity”.

The report also notes how often the victims are discredited after their death.

In the case of Jagendra, it said: “Before dying from extensive burn injuries in June 2015, freelancer Jagendra Singh accused a police officer of setting him on fire. Local police disputed his account and tried to downplay his journalistic credentials. More than a year later, the case is still being investigated at [the] state-level and no arrests have been made.”

The report included that often such investigations were also plagued by delays and key evidence going missing. Such was the case in the murder of Rajput, a reporter with the Hindi-language daily Nai Dunia, who was shot dead outside his home in January 2011. The case was finally handed to the CBI, but Rajput’s family is still waiting for justice.

The report also mentions the “mysterious death of Akshay Singh”, an investigative reporter for the prominent India Today Group, who was working on one of India’s largest corruption scandals when he unexpectedly died during an interview. “In part because of his high profile, Singh’s case was moved to the Central Bureau of Investigation relatively quickly: a marked contrast to the way the deaths of the other journalists featured in this report were handled.”

The report also includes a map of India’s deadliest states.

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a report highlighting the Indian states where the most journalists were murdered in direct retaliation for their work. Credit: Committee to Protect Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a report highlighting the Indian states where the most journalists were murdered in direct retaliation for their work. Credit: Committee to Protect Journalists

Galhotra said that the idea for creating the report emerged in view of the poor “impunity record” and the “escalation in journalists being harassed or attacked, particularly in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, CPJ took an investigative trip to India in March 2016 to speak with members of the press, lawyers, and the relatives of three dead journalists, to try to understand the challenges in attaining justice and the risks faced by reporters on the front lines of exposing wrongdoing.”

He said the cases of Jagendra, Rajput and Akshay highlighted these challenges. “Corruption was the impetus for all three journalists’ final reports and in all three cases, there have been no convictions.”

“Freelancer Jagendra Singh, who died from his injuries after allegedly being set on fire by the police in June 2015, was reporting on allegations that a local minister was involved in land grabs and a rape. Before he was shot dead in January 2011, Umesh Rajput was reporting on allegations of medical negligence and claims that the son of a politician was involved in an illegal gambling business. Investigative reporter Akshay Singh was working on a story linked to the $1 billion Vyapam admissions racket when he died unexpectedly in July 2015,” he said.

Noting that CPJ found a pattern of authorities resisting the execution of independent investigations, Galhotra said lawyers and families of journalists that CPJ’s representatives spoke to said that police often failed to carry out adequate investigations or to identify and apprehend attackers.

Galhotra noted that journalists and whistleblowers, including activists who use the Right to Information Act, have played an indispensable role in exposing corruption in India, including allegations of the misuse of funds when India hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2G Scam of 2011. Quoting media experts, he said that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi made corruption a central issue in his election campaign in 2014, since coming to power, “despite vowing to take action on corruption, authorities have done little to protect the journalists who are on the front lines in trying to expose wrongdoing”.

“No government in India has been an ardent champion of press freedom. The silence by all who have been at the helm of power over the years – be it the Congress Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, or the regional parties that head state or municipal governments – has only fostered a culture of impunity,” he said.

The CPJ also stated that while 27 journalists were murdered in connection with their work and no convictions have been secured by the prosecution in all these cases till date, the mysterious death of another 25 was being investigated by it to see if they were also murdered for their work.

A graphic depicting the prevalence of journalists being murdered in India. Credit: Committee to Protect Journalists

A graphic depicting the prevalence of journalists being murdered in India. Credit: Committee to Protect Journalists

Geeta Seshu, the Mumbai-based consulting editor of media watch website The Hoot, who contributed to the research for the report, said she could think of several cases where the police’s first line of response to a threat, attack, or killing of a journalist was to claim that the victim was not a journalist or that the attack was not work-related. “There is a deflection and that becomes the narrative then. That becomes the course of the investigation also.”

The report also mentioned that the investigations also suffered because the CBI has not always been the most efficient. In fact it mentioned how the agency once claimed before the Supreme Court that it was “overworked and under-staffed” with 724 or nearly 16% of its posts lying vacant, with ongoing investigations in over 1,200 cases and another 9,000 pending in court.

The CPJ also noted that in its 2015 report on the safety of journalists the Press Council of India found that “even though [the] country has robust democratic institutions and [a] vibrant and independent judiciary, the killers of journalists are getting away with impunity. The situation is truly alarming and would impact on the functioning of the democratic institutions in the country.”

But despite the entire journalistic community being under attack, both physically as well as through social media, the CPJ report said several journalists its researchers spoke to echoed the view that there is little outrage, among the media fraternity and society at large, when a journalist is attacked or killed in India.

In light of the prevailing hostile conditions for journalists, the CPJ has also made several recommendations.

It has demanded that the best practices used by other nations be studied and a national protection mechanism be set up to provide security to journalists. Simultaneously, it has urged that a parliamentary hearing be convened on the issue of impunity in anti-press violence – to identify shortcomings in providing justice and ways to overcome challenges of capacity in law enforcement and the judiciary.

Also, it has called upon the Centre to send out a strong message on all attacks on journalists by publicly and unequivocally condemning all killings of journalists.

The CPJ has also urged the CBI to expeditiously complete investigations into the 2015 death of Akshay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and the 2011 murder of Umesh Rajput in Chhattisgarh. It has also asked the Uttar Pradesh government to transfer its investigation of the 2015 death of Jagendra Singh to the CBI.”

In the case of Chhattisgarh, the CPJ has demanded that the state government “order the police to immediately cease any and all intimidation of journalists attempting to do their work.” It has also urged it to “ensure that any actors, including the anti-Maoist group Samajik Ekta Manch, who harass or threaten journalists, are held to account” and that all journalists imprisoned in the state in connection to their work are released.

Finally, CPJ has also asked the Indian media to “better investigate and report on issues of anti-press violence, including individual attacks, threats, and harassment, regardless of the victim’s media affiliation.”

The organisation has also put out a complete list of the journalists that it is convinced were murdered because of their work.