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Independent veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh’s cold-blooded murder outside her Bengaluru residence in Rajarajeshwari Nagar on Tuesday once again puts a spotlight on the dismal status of India’s freedom of press and its essential corollary: safety of journalists. Lankesh’s was a staunch voice of dissent against the establishment and a vociferous critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party and right-wing Hindutva groups. Her murder raises important questions about allowing voices of dissent within India’s purportedly free press. Many parallels have been drawn between her murder with that of anti-establishment rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi in the last few years, whose work angered fundamentalists.
What International Press Freedom Watchdogs determine
India ranked 13th on Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) 2016 Global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are killed and the murderers walk away scot-free. In other words, by this measure, the country with the freest press in South Asia still managed to rank as the 13th most dangerous country in the world for journalists. The list also included 12 other nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Russia.
As per the CPJ research, India had 40 unsolved, languishing journalist murder cases since 1992, of which at least 27 were killed in direct retaliation for their work. Crucially, about half of the journalists killed covered two beats: politics and corruption. The report also noted that India (along with South Sudan and Syria) never responded to UNESCO’s requests for the judicial status of journalist killings in the country.
In May 2017, Reporters Without Borders released its annual Index ranking 180 countries according to the extent of their freedom of press. India stood at a low 136th position, having slipped three positions from its 2016 ranking. (At the same time, Pakistan, tight in the clutches of its military and Islamic extremists, managed to rise by eight positions to 139th from the previous year.) Besides major issues in reporting and media blackouts in Kashmir, the report raised concerns about rising self-censorship in the mainstream Indian media on account of Hindu nationalists attempting to cleanse “all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate”.
Fatal attacks by no means are the sole measure of safety — which is also severely compromised in the form of non-fatal attacks, imprisonment, threats, online bullying and lawsuits. The report also noted that, “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals”. no journalist so far has been slapped with Section 124(a), better known as the Sedition clause, the threat has been palpable enough for a while to influence conduct.
Small town journalists particularly vulnerable
A look at the list of journalists, who were murdered in 2015 and 2016, shows that these acts almost entirely took place in small towns and the victims were usually working freelance or for regional newspapers/channels, rather than larger, national entities.
Sections of national media, particularly the English outlets, tend to be better protected due to their access to governments and the wider visibility they command. In contrast, small town journalists from local publications tend to attract lesser attention and find themselves on their own.
In the wake of an attack, it is also common for their credibility to be questioned. For instance, on June 1, 2015, in the unsolved case of freelance journalist Jagendra Singh in Shahjahanpur, UP – the victim, who ran a Facebook page ‘Shahjahanpur Samachar’ to carry out his reporting, was burnt alive inside his house. Before his death, he accused a police officer on video for the attack at the behest of a local minister. The police disputed the account and downplayed his journalistic credentials. No one is known to have been prosecuted in the case.
The Party and the Press
Many of the problems facing the Indian press predate the BJP and Narendra Modi. However, ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, the party has paid lip service to the idea of free press — but one which knows its place. As per BJP President Amit Shah’s logic, criticising the government remains permissible, but criticising the nation is unthinkable. The line is conveniently made to be too fine in practice.
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted this World Press Freedom Day that it “is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy,” it is no secret that since the beginning, he does not entertain uncomfortable questions from the press and that perceived ‘unruly’ journalists do not get a lot of access to the government. Further, senior members of the ruling party typically do not shy away from ascribing objectionable labels to journalists. Colourful terms, like the widely used portmanteau ‘presstitute,’ coined by none other than Minister of State for External Affairs General V. K. Singh. Singh used the term to lambast the media for not highlighting the good works of the government — implying that it was ‘for sale’. The term was only the first of many popularised by the fanatical supporters of the Modi government.
The BJP tacitly appears to encourage virtual lynch-mobs on social media that go after any journalist “stepping out of line” to criticising the government or its policies. A handful of such toxic Twitter accounts are bizarrely known to be followed by one of Narendra Modi’s handles. Earlier this year, the BJP appointed as its spokesperson, the troublemaker, Tajinder Pal Bagga, who first earned notoriety for his televised 2011 assault on Supreme Court lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan, whom he deemed too sympathetic to Kashmiri separatists. He had later tweeted: “He try to break my Nation, i try to break his head [sic]”.
The murder of outspoken Gauri Lankesh, who wrote extensively in both Kannada and English media, in a major metropolitan city slices the heart of the oft-touted, simple illusion that India is significantly better than its unruly neighbours in matters of the press and journalist safety. In view of these facts, such a claim appears to be true more in theory than in practice. While India may still fare better than Pakistan, Bangladesh or China, that hardly counts as a medal for the world’s largest democracy.