Over this past week, reports of at least three journalists, including a woman, being attacked emerged from different parts of Assam. According to a report, Rajen Deka, a correspondent with the Assamese daily Dainik Asom, was allegedly assaulted with sharp weapons by a BJP activist.
In another incident that same evening, Upasana Barua Goswami, a reporter for a TV channel, was the target of violence by four individuals at a restaurant at Tinsukia district.
Similarly, Rajiv Borah, another journalist who works for a Guwahati-based TV channel, was also attacked and beaten by five individuals in Jorhat.
Attacks on journalists in India are not new. In the Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders, India has seen a continuous decline in its index. This year, India slipped two places and now ranks 140 among 180 countries, from 138 last year (2018) and 136 a year before that (2017).
Those who work for the non-English press are more vulnerable, likely to be attacked, intimidated and killed, and face other forms of direct and indirect threats. This is evident from the list of journalists who have faced violence and threats over the years – from state as well as non-state actors – even though it is often commented that non-English and local journalists are ‘sold out’ and more likely to indulge in journalistic malpractices.
What we forget while passing such judgements is that the circumstances they work and operate in are simply not conducive for journalism. Moreover, in doing so, we also absolve media organisations who force them to indulge in these journalistic malpractices. And mind you, these are not small media organisations facing acute financial crises, but big corporates with subscriptions that run into crores. Despite that, those working in these organisations are paid peanuts and are often not recognised as journalists.
In my interactions with several journalists working for the non-English media cross the country, I have found that it is not that there is a dearth of good reporters and journalists on the ground. The fact is that these journalists, often working in small towns and villages, grapple with a number of issues, professional and otherwise. Most of them do not have any steady source of income because they work mostly as stringers, contributors and agents.
However, whenever something happens, they are the first ones to reach on the ground. Being closer to the ground and in direct access of their reporting subjects, they face enormous challenges. More often than not, there is pressure to not report what should ideally be reported, and sometimes, not buckling under the pressure could mean putting their lives in danger.
On the other hand, those of us who live in big cities and report in English do not have to face such real threats on a day-to-day basis. This is not to suggest that those who write in English and live in big cities do not face threats and other forms of challenges. But the threats are relatively different and rare in comparison with non-English and local journalists. Moreover, whenever there is an attack on such journalists, it receives considerable media attention and forces a sense of solidarity amongst peers.
It is true that all journalists are journalists and what should matter is the story and not who has done it. But that only arises when all reporters and stringers are considered journalists in the first place. In many cases, we have seen that the moment a stringer and a contributor comes under attack, the media houses they work for disown them. That is also possible because usually their stories do not carry their byline.
Today, as we observe World Press Freedom Day, let’s give a thought about fellow journalists who are often denied their basic entitlement – the identity of a journalist. One can argue that they are not full-time journalists or that journalism is not their primary occupation.
In that case, we have to ask: why are they not full-time and who is responsible for it? Can they survive on the compensation and mere facilities that they are paid for by the organisations that they work for?
Let’s not forget that good journalism exists not because of ‘star reporters and anchors’ but because of the countless nameless, faceless non-English stringers and local reporters working on the ground, giving us leads about stories and developments.
It is high time we recognise their labour and try to ensure that they are treated equally.