Freedom from fear — On Tripura journalist murder

The murder in Tripura underscores the perilous circumstances reporters work in

Published - September 22, 2017 12:15 am IST

The murder of Santanu Bhowmik , a television reporter, in Mandwai in Tripura on Wednesday has predictably drawn the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party into a blame game . While the CPI(M), which is in power in the State, is calling this an ideologically motivated murder by BJP-backed forces, the BJP in turn is keen on casting the killing as purely a law and order failure of the Manik Sarkar government. Bhowmik, who was in his late-20s, was brutally attacked while in the line of duty covering clashes between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the CPI(M)’s tribal wing, the Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad. The IPFT has been escalating its agitation for a separate State, and Tripura has been tense this week with prohibitory orders under Section 144 in place in some districts. By some accounts, Bhowmik had incriminating footage of violence by activists of the IPFT. With elections in Tripura due six months from now, and the BJP taking the fight to the long-ruling CPI(M), there is every danger of fact becoming a casualty as the battle becomes more polarised. It would be a blow against the freedom of the press if Bhowmik’s death is not investigated, keenly and expeditiously, for what it is: because first reports indicate that he did not die in the crossfire, he was targeted.

The murder is a reminder of the dangerous circumstances journalists report in and the physical threat they wear as a second skin. Frequently, as Gauri Lankesh’s killing hinted, they are targeted by extremist groups wanting to intimidate others in the public sphere from taking a particular questioning line. At other times, they are killed for knowing too much. Bhowmik may fall in either category, or both. The inhibitory effect of such killings is obvious and it is welcome that mediapersons around the country are demanding a swift follow-up to punish his killers. But in a democracy such tragic deaths need more than just the rallying of colleagues in the profession. There is a clear line that connects intimidatory tactics against a journalist — whether by physical violence or in other coercive ways — and the health of a democracy. India’s Constitution does not specifically mention the freedom of the press, as do those of some countries, including the United States. This makes it all the more important for the public discourse to internalise the connection, so that a watchful vigil against violence and coercion is never allowed to flag. All too often, appraisals such as the World Press Freedom Index are shrugged aside as being incidental. Bhowmik’s death must bring the chill of India’s ranking falling to 136, from an already abysmal 133 in 2016, closer to our bones.

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