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Background note for a National Convention Against Assault on Journalists

Honest and pro-people scribes are suppressed in every regime. Journalists are usually intimidated, attacked and even killed for speaking the truth to the power. However, there is a huge difference in the degree of suppression depending upon the station from where one chooses to work.
Those reside in cosmopolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai are neither aware of the complexity of the situations of the journalists stationed in remote areas nor they could get a sense of challenges that they face while performing their line of duties. As you look deeper into the backwaters of the country a horrendous nexus of state and non-state actors targeting upright and conscientious journalists come in to the light. A journalist has to perform his or her duty as well as secure his or her survival in a hostile scenario. He or she has to strike a fine balance between what is wrong and what is right and invariably walk on a tightrope in order to survive and continue in the profession. The myriad conflicts arising out of it does not leave much space for fair and unfettered journalism. They either gets co-opted or have to face the music. This binary is now slowly getting entrenched into the larger ecosystem that shaping the profession of reporting from the ground as a journalist. The choices are hard and very few that left for any journalist who wants to work without compromising his or her trade and conscience.

This sorry state of the profession rampant throughout the country and has further worsened during the last four years of NDA rule that we could see a spurt in incidents related to attack on freedom of speech and expression. A new trend seems to have emerged where the state is driven by the ideology of hardcore Hindutva Nationalism. It has given rise to storm troopers. These are groups of lumpen elements who are constantly in search of excuses to attack media. They are active and uncompromising practitioners. They have succeeded in creating a public perception that who so ever dissent the ruling dispensation are anti-national, anti-Hindu and anti-India. The ruling party chooses for deliberate silence over the incidents as heinous as murder of the journalists, only because, the perpetrators of such violence are followed on social media by their leaders. We could see this evidently in the case of Gauri Lankesh who was murdered in Bangalore by rightwing extremists. The twitter user who had abused Gauri after her murder was followed on the twitter by none other than Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. This is not a lone case; since a pattern is rather emerging to shield and provide cover to such potential culprits.  A sense of impunity and invincibility in non-state actors has developed with the belief that they could target the journalists to deter them from performing their duties with the conscience what they feel for the public good. Thus, they are now on a killing spree on broad daylight. The spine chilling murder of Shujaat Bukhari, Editor of Rising Kashmir, is a case in point.

Speaking at the Press Club of India last year, senior jurist Fali S. Nariman quoted a judge who said, “Today the basic question is not of freedom of speech rather freedom after speech. No one is stopping you from speaking the truth but as soon as you express your mind there is no guarantee of your life”.

A more recent trend that has emerged amidst the debate on nationalism in past couple of years headed to a sharp division in media fraternity on ideological lines. Not only individual journalists but some media groups have openly resorted to attack the fellow journalists and other media channels who criticize the present government and talk on liberal values. Each and every night on prime time TV one could find that there is no difference between the news anchors of some news channels and the spokespersons of the ruling party. This has speeded up the process of internal censorship, surveillance and professional harassment to the upright journalists within the media organisations. This internal censorship in newsrooms manifests itself in many forms; right from curbing others political opinion to verbal abuse emanating from caste, upbringing, social status, colour, dressing sense, speech and dialect. This can go up to the physical harassment too. The famous case of Tanu Sharma in the India TV was one of such cases. This year a couple of cases were reported by women journalists from the news channels like Republic TV and India Today digital. Organisations like Zee News and BCCL have restricted the use of mobile phones for journalists inside their organisation’s premises. Some organisations have gained full control over their employee’s social media accounts too.

In the conflict ridden areas such as Bastar, this seems to develop a cartel of journalist fraternity. Those who are closed to the state and mafia are backed by its rule the roost but those who are reporting objectively for the ground suffer at the hands of this cartel. For instance the recent case of an unprecedented police raids in the Rajasthan Patrika bureau office in Jagdalpur. Another similar incident was happened in the office of the Daily Navbharat, based in Raipur, although the raid was conducted with the help of a lumpen group associated with the ruling party. There was no evidence of the slightest resistance in the wake of such incidents that shows how this cartel brazenly infringes upon the freedom of press in such provinces. The same had happened to NDTV but it was privileged to have their offices in Delhi. We saw much protest and senior journalists were rallying against the government soon after the raids by the government agencies at the office and residence of the channel’s proprietors.

Apart from individual attacks on journalists in the line of duty, internal censors and intimidation, there has been abnormal increase of fabricated cases against the journalists for expressing one's views on social media whether in text or pictorial form. For example, senior journalist Kamal Shukla was charged with sedition in Chhattisgarh when he posted a cartoon on his Facebook page. Another journalist Jitendra Surana was booked in Madhya Pradesh under the sections of rape but his crime was posting a cartoon online. Trolling on social media is on all-time high. Ravish Kumar, Barkha Dutt, Rana Ayyub are a few renowned journalists are regularly trolled on Twitter and Facebook. Even Central Ministers are not being spared. Most recently the Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj was trolled by BJP supporters for the passport case that cut her ratings nosedive in a week. The troll army of the BJP is a gang of misguided youths who are able to take on anyone as per their or their boss’s whims without any justified reason.

Another trend that has more or less escaped the debate on freedom of expression is the misuse of state machinery and defamation laws to intimidate journalists and media organisations and force them to retract their stories and apologize. NDA government, in its initial days talked about the scrapping of the defamation law but on the contrary, now we could see is a surge in defamation cases against the media. The much talked case is the case of The Wire. The fact is if a journalist reports against the top echelons wielding power with full facts with genuine and irrefutable evidence, they take umbrage and slap unjustifiable court cases to harass and deter the non-compliant journalist and his or her media house. A criminal case of defamation demanding a few crores for damages is slapped to scare the daring media houses. Many smalltime politicians have now followed this route to silence anyone going against them. The story in EPW against a central government ministry was a classic case that show a mixture of misuse of the state machinery and internal censorship. In this case the government beneficiary company Adani issued a defamation notice to EPW although the story was not against them. After that it was followed by the removal of the Editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and then the story was retracted from website of EPW.

There are specific cases of horrible murders on the issues of mining. Mining areas have recently become deathbed for upright journalists. A journalist was mowed down by a truck in Bhind for reporting against a police officer involved in illegal mining. Two journalists were killed in Bihar on reporting illegal mining issue. We have dozens of cases related to mining from all over North India and a few from South India. There are RTI activists-cum-journalists like the one who got killed in Jharkhand for probing illegal mining. A very senior writer Uday Prakash was menacingly intimidated in his ancestral village by the sand mining mafia. There are aberrations for such cases. For example, all deaths happening in the mining areas are not directly linked to exposing the mafia. Some journalists were killed in the process of getting co-opted and securing a healthy cut in illegal transactions. There is a very thin dividing line between blackmail and journalism. Therefore, we have kept this in mind while identifying the cases.

Last but not the least Northeastern states of India can be a special case vis-à-vis the plight of journalists in the region. More than 30 journalists have been killed in Assam alone during the last three decades. This is besides what has been happening in the other seven northeastern states. “Much before India’s ratings in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index dipped to 138 (five notches below Palestine and 21 below Afghanistan) primarily triggered by cases like the murder of a defenseless woman editor like Gauri Lankesh last September – the Northeast saw bullets pumped into the stomach of Arunachal Times editor Tongam Rina in 2012. In recent times, Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim too was attacked. Both Mukhim and Rina are fortunate to have survived to tell their stories and continue their work. However, many of their male colleagues haven’t. From editors down to the rank of reporters and camerapersons, the number of the dead male journalists makes a long list", reports The Wire. There are cases of editors being booked under the National Security Act. Thanks to digital media that we now get instant news of such attacks in Northeast otherwise it took more than a month for news about such incidents to reach Delhi even as late as a couple of years ago or so.

As per reports of media watchdogs like CPJ, India is faring worst in press freedom index these days. The situation has worsened as major journalists' unions and organisations have lapsed into virtual oblivion. The official agency Press Council of India has always been a paper tiger in such matters. Journalists themselves fear of getting fired through internal injustices as they have no social security apparatus available to them. The Working Journalists Act has become obsolete after the dawn of electronic media and job contract regime. Most of the attacks are faced by the journalists who are not on rolls but work as a stringer, representative, retainer, contributor and freelancer. Even in case of bureau reporters media organisations never back their staff. A recent case of a female reporter working in Bilaspur bureau of News Nation speaks in volumes about the alienation and apathy that local reporters face. She was booked in a fabricated case lodged by the police when she was on duty to report a story. The news organisation neither had clue nor did it try to pursue the case after being informed by an activist.

By adding to it the recent pronouncement by a BJP leader from Jammu and Kashmir, which said whoever dares to speak against government would meet the fate of Shujaat Bukhari. Such statements always go unchecked and unpunished. In such circumstances, the defenders of free speech and expression need to sit and deliberate on the future course. Should we allow these killings to continue as is the case now? Or should we intervene? It is not a question related to only those who dare to speak the truth in the times of deceit rather the very profession of journalism is in danger. Be it institutional or independent, the powerful and the invincible forces are desperate to ensure that journalists are not allowed to perform its regular and normal duty. This is something new that was not even witnessed even in the days of officially declared emergency where democratic rights were admittedly suspended. Today the democracy is itself suspended without any official pronouncement. The forces complicit in this attempt are essentially the state, notorious gangs sponsored by the ruling party, section of voters and the partisan media owned by pliant businessperson. Hence this is no black and white situation. It is much complex phenomenon that needs serious deliberations.

Committee against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ) would like to invite all stakeholders in the light of the sorry state of affairs as mentioned above for a two-day long convention at the Constitution Club of India, New Delhi on September 22-23, 2018. The convention will discuss each and every aspect of assaults on journalists in six long sessions spread over two days. Victims from media drawn from all over the country would present their testimonies. Senior journalists and retired judges would preside over the sessions. The convention would wind up with a pledge to bring out a white paper on Indian media. Some immediate and long-term steps to ensure safety of journalists and sustain the eco-system of free expression and speech guaranteed in the Indian constitution will be narrated down and suggested after due deliberations.

Looking forward for your consent and valuable inputs and suggestions,

Committee against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ)
New Delhi


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