In the midst of all the brouhaha over Justice Markandeya Katju’s remarks over the declining standards of the media as a whole and the ire of media business organisations over the Press Council Chairman’s views, it may seem ironical to remind everyone concerned that journalists are actually quite a beleaguered community – in fact, they are facing the gravest threats to their lives and the practice of their profession than ever before.
Today, November 23, marks the anniversary of the Ampatuan town massacre – the single deadliest killing of 32 journalists in the Philippines in 2009. In an effort to commemorate the day, as well as remember the scores of journalists who have lost their lives over the last decade, international freedom of expression organisations have decided to observe November 23 as the International Day to End Impunity.
At least 887 journalists have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1992 and at least 554 of these murders are still unsolved, according to reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In a majority of these killings, investigations are still on or the culprits are nowhere near being brought to book. They roam scot-free, secure in the knowledge that they will remain so.
The South Asian Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN), a grouping of journalists’ organisations under the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has begun a campaign on the increasing number of deaths in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, including that of Saleem Shahzad in June this year and Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.
Closer home, the Free Speech Hub, a project of The Hoot,
has been tracking violations of freedom of expression since 2010, including the attacks on journalists in India. Even as the media expands exponentially, there is immense pressure on the truth that journalists seek to write or transmit. Often, unwittingly or otherwise, journalists become prey to these pressures and pay for it with their lives.
In 2010, Sushil Pathank of Dainik Bhaskar, was shot dead in Bilaspur, Chhatisgarh on December 20. In the same year, 27 other journalists were attacked, often by clearly identifiable assailants belonging to some political party or social group or even police or security forces.
In 2011, Umesh Rajput of Nai Duniya, was also shot dead on January 23 near his residence at Chhura village, in Chhattisgarh. A note, stating “Khabar chaapna band nahi karoge toh mare jaoge” (If you don’t stop publishing news, you will be killed), was found near the crime scene.
Barely a few months later, on June 11, Mid-Day journalist, J Dey, was shot dead in broad daylight. After a public outcry by journalists in Mumbai and other cities, police arrested eight persons for the murder. But the Mumbai police are yet to file a chargesheet in the case and are still chary of establishing a motive for the killing.
The police investigation, or lack of it, is a singular thread that runs through all instances of such attacks and killings. In Assam, for instance, 27 journalists have been killed in the last 23 years – a majority during the years of strife and political turmoil. But, even though the assailants were identified in a majority of the cases, there hasn’t been any conviction in even one case.
CBI inquiry into Pathak’s death, no progress in Rajput’s case
That the political will to pursue the cases is clearly lacking is a given. In Sushil Pathak’s case, it was after sustained pressure from journalists’ organisations in Chhattisgarh (Pathak was secretary of the Bilaspur Press Club and was a well-known journalist) that the state’s Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh ordered an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in February this year. Till date, investigations are on and no arrests have been made, says Pathak’s wife, Sangeeta. “They don’t tell us anything, though I have been questioned twice,” she told this writer.
For the families of the journalists who have been killed, there is no sense of closure. A bewildered Sangeeta says she is surprised anyone could have harboured so much enmity against her journalist husband to have killed him! Pathak did not share any information about any threats to his life or any animosity with anyone, she says, adding that he believed in keeping home and work separate.
While Pathak was a staffer of Dainik Bhaskar, Umesh Rajput was seen as a freelancer and his death only underscores the plight of a majority of stringers who work for newspapers and, apart from bringing in the news, also work on a commission for advertisements. For Rajput’s family, therefore, the process of even securing an acknowledgement that a journalist has died in the line of duty, has been an uphill battle.
According to his brother Parmeshwar Kumar Rajput, Umesh had written a story for Nai Duniya on the death of an adivasi women after a botched eye operation barely a week before he was killed. “The local police did not investigate the death and the case was referred to the crime branch, but even here there was no progress,” he said. The delay has forced him to file a writ petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court seeking some progress into the investigation.
In Umesh Rajput’s case, there is enough evidence that he was threatened for his story by local health officers and doctors. The journalist had even filed a first information report (FIR) with the Chhura police about the threats he received. Yet, the investigations did not proceed.
Each death of a journalist has a chilling effect on the profession. The killers get away with it, secure in the knowledge that freelancers like Umesh Rajput are, in any case, a vulnerable lot and their deaths – in small cities and towns - won’t cause much of a flutter. Perhaps there are also secure in the knowledge that journalists like Pathak or Dey were so cautious and secretive that they left no trail – even to the people who were a threat to them.
But what they are definitely sure about is that the long arm of the law is still too short, or too hamstrung by hidden political interests. Journalists, and their organisations, need to raise a strong voice against the deaths and attacks of their colleagues, the inadequate investigations into these deaths and the lack of accountability by security forces.