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Indian journalists seek protection in the face of deteriorating press freedom

On February 17, 2016, Indian journalists shout slogans during a protest to condemn an assault on fellow media workers by lawyers at a court in New Delhi. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
by Nava Thakuria

GUWAHATI, July 18, 2018 - We concluded the first half of 2018 with a shocking piece of news that broke from America, one of the professed liberal spaces for journalists on Earth. A gunman stormed into the newsroom of a Maryland newspaper in the USA and killed five media employees.

DANGEROUS TIMES The shooting incident of June 28, 2018 at Capital Gazette in Annapolis which eliminated news-desk personnel Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John Mcnamara, Wendi Winters etc., was a reminder that journalists across the globe - not only those working in the conflict zones - are facing dangerous times.

India reported the murder of four journalists in the last six months and its troubled neighbour Pakistan followed with the casualties of two scribes. Another neighbour Bangladesh reported the murder of one editor-publisher since January 1. Whereas other countries in the Indian subcontinent namely Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives have evaded any incident of journo-killing in this period.

India lost three journalists in mysterious accidents within twelve hours in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar on March 25 &26, 2018. Sandeep Sharma (36), a dedicated reporter of Bhind locality of MP, was deliberately mowed down by a truck in the morning hours. The News World reporter succumbed to injuries in the hospital. Sandeep used to contribute media reports against the sand mafia and he received threats as a result.

On the previous night, two scribes namely Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh were hit by a luxury vehicle in Bhojpur locality of Bihar and they both died on their way to the hospital. Navin (35), who used to work for Dainik Bhaskar and Vijay (26), who was associated with a Hindi magazine, were riding on a two-wheeler when the accident happened.

Lately there has been another unfortunate stir in the country following the murder of a well-known, brave and outspoken journalist Kashmiri journalist, Syed Shujaat Bukhari, who was shot dead in Srinagar on June 14 by a group of militants.

The proprietor & chief editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat had earlier faced similar attacks in 2000 and 2006, hence he was provided with government security. But this time, his two security guards namely Hamid Chaudhary and Mumtaz Awan also died facing the bullets of hardliner Islamist forces.

Shujaat started his career in Kashmir Times, before moving to The Hindu as its Kashmir correspondent. He later established a Kashmir Media House that publishes English daily Rising Kashmir, Urdu daily Buland Kashmir and Kashmiri daily Sangarmal. Shujaat hails from Kreeri locality in Baramulla district. He left behind his parents, wife and two minor children. He was cremated on the day of Eid after Ramzan's fasting days in his home place.

GLOBAL PRESS FREEDOM INDEX India is placed at 138 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) 2018 global press freedom index, which has shown a degradation from 2017 (136th position) and 2016 (133). India is followed by Pakistan (139), Thailand (140), Cambodia (142), Malaysia (145), Bangladesh (146), Mexico (147), Russia (148), Singapore (151), Turkey (157), Iraq (160), Egypt (161), Iran (164), Laos (170), Cuba (172), China (176), Syria (177), North Korea (180).

Norway and Sweden have maintained their first two positions in the RSF press freedom index, where North Korea continues to be at the bottom of the list. Some of the countries performing better than India include Myanmar (137), Philippines (133), Sri Lanka (131), Qatar (125), Indonesia (124), Maldives (120), Afghanistan (118), Nepal (106), Bhutan (94), Israel (87), Hong Kong (70), Fiji (57), Mauritius (56), South Korea (43), Taiwan (42), United Kingdom (40), Ghana (23), Belgium (7), Switzerland (5), Netherlands (3).

URGENT ACTION NEEDED On July 3, the RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to take urgent action against all kinds of physical and mental assaults to media persons in the country. Deloire also revealed that the incident report relating to world press freedom index was issued focusing on India.

Notably, the Paris-based media watchdog had issued such a report for the first time focusing on a country, where it observed with concerns over various challenges to freedom of the press. The RSF finally warned the Bhartiya Janata Party-led federal government in New Delhi that the country was on verge of deteriorating further in the global press freedom index.

An RSF statement mentioned other Indian media victims of assaults namely Satyendra Gangwar, who was shot on June 22 by the mining mafia gang in Uttar Pradesh; Suman Debnath, who faced severe attacks by the goons on June 18 in Tripura and Patricia Mukhim, whose residence was attacked with a kerosene bomb on April 17 in Meghalaya.
It also added that a sharp increase of online abuse and harassment to journalists in addition to relentless intimidations by police personnel, bureaucrats, politicians and other criminals was observed, which has been deteriorating the working atmosphere for media persons across India. The RSF also cited examples where author-journalist Rana Ayyub, television anchor Ravish Kumar, senior reporter Debabrat Ghose. were subjected to hate online messages.

CASUALTIES According to various international agencies, nearly 50 journalists have lost their lives to assailants so far this year. Afghanistan, with 11 casualties, tops the list. It is followed by Syria (7), USA (6), Yemen and Mexico (5 each), India (4), Pakistan, Mexico, Palestine, Philippines, United States of America and Ecuador (2 each), Bangladesh, Indonesia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Slovakia and Syria (1 each).

Pakistan lost journalist Anjum Muneer Raja, who used to work in Urdu daily Qaumi Pukaar, to assailants on March 1. Raja, 40, was shot dead by the miscreants in Rawalpindi locality, while he was on his way home late in the evening. The second case was reported on March 27, when Zeeshan Ashraf Butt, a journalist from another Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt, faced the bullets. Butt, 29, was allegedly targeted by Begowala Union Council chairperson.

Bangladesh reported the murder of Shahzahan Bachchu on June 11 at Munshiganj. Editor of Amader Bikrampur, Bachchu was suspected to have been targeted by Islamist forces for his free-thinking comments. Various international rights bodies condemned the murder of Bachchu and urged the authority to probe genuinely and find the culprits.

The year 2017 was reported to be the deadliest for journalists, as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) claimed the casualties were as high as 82. India witnessed the murders of Hari Prakash, Brajesh Kumar Singh, Shyam Sharma, Kamlesh Jain, Surender Singh Rana, Gauri Lankesh, Shantanu Bhowmik, KJ Singh, Rajesh Mishra, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, Naveen Gupta and Rajesh Sheoran in that year.

Among those casualties, northeast's tiny state of Tripura reported two incidents of journo-murder within few weeks. Shantanu Bhowmik, a young television reporter was beaten and stabbed to death during a protest demonstration at Mandai of western Tripura. On the other hand, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, who used to work for a Bengali newspaper, was shot dead by a Tripura State Rifles constable at RK Nagar locality in the same area.

Both murders created an uproar in northeast India and the then State Chief Minister Manik Sarkar received widespread criticism from various quarters. Earlier the Communist Chief Minister had to digest brickbats following the murder of three media employees (Sujit Bhattacharya, Ranjit Chowdhury and Balaram Ghosh) in Agartala in 2013.

Now, Tripura has a BJP-led government and the new Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, following the saffron party’s poll promises, recently handed over the cases of Shantanu and Sudip to Central Bureau of Investigation for higher probes. Meanwhile, the CBI booked three tribal leaders namely Dhirendra Debbarma, Balram Debbarma and Amit Debbarma in connection with Santanu’s murder. It may be mentioned that Dhirendra is a legislator nominated by Indigenous People's Front of Tripura, which is an ally to the ruling coalition government in Agartala.

In 2017, Pakistan lost seven journalists namely Muhammad Jan, Taimoor Khan, Abdul Razzaque, Bakshish Ellahi, Haroon Khan, Samar Abbas and Utpal Das along with a novice scribe Mashal Khan to assailants. On the other hand, India's other neighbours namely Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives witnessed the murder of one scribe each last year.

IMPRISONMENT According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), over 260 scribes were facing imprisonment in 2017 for their works. Turkey, for the successive second year, emerged as the country with the highest number (73) of reporters imprisoned, followed by China (41), Egypt (22), Eritrea (11), Azerbaijan (10), Bahrain (9), Iran & Syria (7), Uzbekistan (6), Saudi Arabia (4) etc. The Indian subcontinent reported the imprisonment of around twenty five media employees, where Bangladesh leads (10) followed by Myanmar (5). Besides imprisonments, many media persons are being abused and physically assaulted in different countries for their journalistic activities.

While international media rights bodies like RSF, CPJ, IFJ, etc. have raised voices for justice to all slain media persons, the media fraternity in the Indian subcontinent continues to pursue a pragmatic action plan to safeguard journalists. They have put their arguments loud and clear that if the nations want the scribes to do their risky job for the greater interest, their security along with justice must be ensured.
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