Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters - Now, an endangered press

In the line of fire: Will such protests help protect journalists? Photo: Vivek Bendre

In the line of fire: Will such protests help protect journalists? Photo: Vivek Bendre  

The murder of Mid-Day's J. Dey is only the tip of the iceberg. If violence against journalists continues unchecked, can a beleaguered press continue to report the way it should?

The lawlessness that is currently manifest in public life is turning out to have another dimension to it. The power to scotch the watchdog role of the media. Ironically, while the profession has been drawing flak for having become both soft and sensational, those who have been trying to report honestly from the ground may not be able to continue doing so. Since India is now a country where many exercise power illegitimately, our much-touted free press has become an endangered press.

One sentence leapt out last week from a report on one of the condolence meetings for Mid-Day's J. Dey. It said, senior crime reporters “appealed to fellow journalists to report with utmost caution and to not go deeper into the underworld or crime stories.” Journalists are perceived to belong to a power-wielding entity called media, but the truth is that the vast majority is neither respected for their role, nor safe. So they will respond with self-censorship.

Paying a price

J. Dey's murder has made people sit up because it happened the way it did — a spectacular shooting reminiscent of a gangland killing. But it was the third murder of a journalist in a six-month period, not something a civilised country should permit. The other two barely claimed attention; they occurred in Chattisgarh in late December and in January. Both victims belonged to Hindi newspapers, to Dainik Bhaskar and Nai Dunia. Neither case has been solved; one has been handed over to the CBI. And between the January killing (by masked men on a motorcycle in a village in Raipur district) and the one in Mumbai last week, there is an amazing trail of violence which needs to be comprehended.

People like Dey chose to exercise their freedom to report by exposing wrong doing, but you pay a price for doing that. Just how often is something nobody notices because journalists are not working to put that picture together. They stop at protests, statements and demonstrations. Apart from the murders, this year alone there have been more than 10 cases of physical attacks and vandalism, occurring in Orissa, Kerala, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and, of course, Maharashtra. It points to the fact that journalists have become fair game for all kinds of people, who neither fear them, nor hesitate to fix them.

In May a photographer for Prahaar was beaten up by a state reserve police force constable in Mumbai while covering a rally at Azad Maidan and the police declined to register an FIR. They registered a non-cognisable complaint. The same day in Kerala police announced that they had traced the man behind an assault in April on a senior reporter of Mathrubhumi. He had been waylaid and assaulted with iron rods, leaving him with multiple fractures. When the case was finally solved the man arrested for allegedly masterminding the attack was a deputy superintendent of the crime branch! He was accused of hiring a gang of hit-men to attack the reporter who had published reports, which got the officer into trouble both with his superiors and his wife.

Also in May in Mumbai, a Mid-Day reporter was arrested under the Official Secrets Act, for exposing lapses by the railway security forces. J. Dey had helped get him released. Meanwhile, in the same month in Itanagar, a group of youth, supporters of a state Congress leader, vandalised a number of media offices because they objected to a report in one daily. In Goa in May journalists were protesting the manhandling of a journalist by the security staff of a mining company.

In March in Orissa a journalist organisation called Media Unity for Freedom of the Press staged a protest in Bhubaneshwar against the behaviour of a district forest officer who had manhandled an ETV reporter and cameraperson and detained them in his lock up room when they visited his office to get his views on the forest clearance to Jindal Steel and Power's project. And there were two other instances of attacks on journalists in Orissa in March — one by unruly members of a Dalit-Adivasi manch, who targeted photo journalists to prevent them from capturing their blockade on camera; another by students at an institute of technology when their campus unrest was being covered. In the same month in Srinagar a Hindustan Times photographer was assaulted and his camera seized by security forces when he was trying to photograph two dead militants. Then there were three attacks on journalists in Orissa in February.

A few things should be clear from this narrative: nobody is afraid of taking matters into their own hands when reporters file reports that displease. A variety of perpetrators in Orissa have no qualms about getting violent — the state recorded eight incidents of violence against scribes and photographers this year, and 12 last year. Last year there were also seven cases of intimidation and threats including a case of forced entry into a weekly's office by 150 members of a women's organisation.

The perpetrators

While the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi, the Maharashtra CM and so on rushed to make pronouncements after Dey's killing, they need to take note of one fact. The most consistent perpetrators across different states are from the police, usually as retaliation for a report published or a picture taken. Of the 11-odd cases of physical attacks against news personnel this year, the police figure as alleged perpetrators in as many as seven.

Last year the Karnataka police charged K.K. Shahina, a reporter with Tehelka magazine, of criminal intimidation under Sec 506 of the Indian Penal Code for undertaking a systematic investigation of the police case against Abdul Nasar Madani, chairman of People's Democratic Party (PDP), Kerala. Doing one's job is risky now.

If they are becoming fair game for everybody from students, to political workers, to police and CRPF jawans, it makes you wonder if the media as a sector really has clout. The foot soldiers of the profession evidently don't, even if the stars do. Has the country's Home Minister, for instance, asked the Chief Minister of Orissa to explain why so many incidents of attacks on newspersons occurred in his state last year and this year?

Can journalists avoid looking into what is causing this extent of violence? The media's own conduct, or the intolerance of people in power at different levels or a mix of both? Last year in West Bengal after a CRPF van was blown away by the Maoists and five jawans lost their lives, four journalists were brutally beaten with batons and AK-47 rifle butts by CRPF personnel just a short distance away from the blast site. The jawans accused the journalists of being responsible for the death of their colleagues, by their continuous coverage of the anti rebel operations.

All kinds of law enforcement machinery are now taking law into their own hands against media workers seen as pesky irritants. Two problems with that: can a beleaguered press continue to report the way they should? And if they stop doing so and begin to self-censor in self-preservation, who is the loser?

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 11:22:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Sevanti_Ninan/media-matters-now-an-endangered-press/article2109230.ece

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