Stop press: danger rose for Indian journalists in 2016-17
The past year for many Indian journalists has been far from pleasant. Journalists have been attacked, trolled, accused of sedition and even been forced to indulge in self censorship.
“Investigative reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous,” a report by independent researchers working with thehoot.org, a media watch dog notes.
From January 2016 to April 2017, the India Freedom Report documents, there were 54 cases of attacks on journalists. The figure is lower than the 152 attacks that the Ministry of Home Affairs documented in 2014-2015.
But, as the report notes, the data reveals a disturbing pattern of impunity and the failure of law enforcement agencies - whose own personnel are sometimes the perpetrators of such attacks - to book the culprits.
“In the 114 incidents of attacks on journalists in 2014, only 32 people were arrested and in relation to the 28 incidents in 2015, 41 people were arrested,” the report says. Seven journalists, mostly form the hinterland, lost their lives in these attacks. However, evidence says professional work could be the motive only in one case.
Just last week, Reporters Without Borders said that globally “media freedom has never been so threatened,” as it released its annual press freedom index. India found itself three ranks lower in the latest index, slipping to 136 on the list.
Journalists in small towns are often asked to not just report but to also double up as marketing agents to garner advertisements for the newspapers putting them in a precarious position professionally. Even big publications follow this model.
But in many of the cases, reporters going out in the field chasing stories of illegal mining, or police brutality, become easy targets and the attackers often get emboldened because of their proximity to those in power.
For example, journalists reporting about corruption in coal mining in Margerita in Assam were attacked by a mob numbering of around 40 strong. The journalists had a difficult time in even getting the police to register a complaint. According to report, the mafia which attacked the group was close to the local MLA from the ruling BJP.
That the law enforcers are often mixed up with those attacking the media was also visible in the case of journalist Malini Subramaniam who was hounded out of Bastar by members of a local anti-Maoist vigilante group alleged to have support of the local police.
Bastar is in the heart of what is called the Red Corridor, where incidents of violence perpetrated by Maoists is routine. There have also been reports of incidents where security forces deployed to take on the Maoists have also engaged in human right violations including sexual violence.
Meanwhile, physical attacks on the media are not the only danger posing a threat to press freedom in the country. There have been multiple instances of forced and voluntary censorship, seemingly under pressure from the majority mood of the country.
As the report notes, two incidents explain the prevailing situation. The first describes how offices of major local dailies in Kashmir were raided by authorities after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani, how printing presses were forced to close down, and later, how Kashmir Reader another local publication was banned for three months.
Secondly, it speaks of how NDTV imposed self censorship on itself in the aftermath of the surgical strike carried out special forces of the Indian Army. An email from a senior editor explaining how national security cannot be compromised by politics in the prime time debates had got the channel a lot of flak.
NDTV India also faced a day long ban for its coverage of the Pathankot attack, where it was alleged that it had revealed strategic information even as the attack unfolded.
Censorship seems to be not just confined to news media. At times, the government bodies, like the CBFC, seem to have gone overboard in their objections with films. The report notes how depiction of issues like homophobia have led to censorship.
Meanwhile, instruments promoting transparency and free flow of information, like the Right to Information, too, have come under attack.
The report notes how the highest proportion of RTI applications were under the category of “others”. “At 43% rejections recorded under this category, more than four out of every ten RTI applications rejected were for reasons other than those permitted by the RTI Act,” the report says.
Such press freedom reports are subject to criticism, of course. But freedom of the press is among the most important parts of freedom of speech, and that is exactly why attacks on the press are direct assaults on the freedom supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.