Comment

For regional journalists, it’s a fight for survival

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Journalists, especially those in the hinterland, operate in an unhealthy climate marked by poor pay, little job security, exploitation and death threats.

One chilly February evening in 2005, Amar Ujala reporter Samiuddin Neelu was returning home when he was allegedly kidnapped by a special unit of the Uttar Pradesh police. Driven in a jeep to a remote forest outside Lakhimpur Kheri, bordering Nepal, he was held at gunpoint and asked to write a suicide note as the police threatened to eliminate him in an ‘encounter’ killing.

Samiuddin’s presence of mind saved him. He told the police that he had already warned the then Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party government, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Press Council of India. The policemen backed off. The harassment, however, didn’t end. The journalist was falsely implicated and imprisoned for nine days under the Wildlife Act for possessing contraband.

Why was Samiuddin hounded? Because he had regularly highlighted State corruption, atrocity, illegal land encroachment, and dubious sterilisation schemes in his reports. His ordeal soon made headlines. The NHRC and the PCI pulled up the U.P. government, and the case rocked the State Assembly. However, little was done to punish the culprits. The probe undertaken was restricted to the cases foisted against him lessening the persecution he was subjected to.

Then, in 2010, in a significant decision, the >NHRC asked the Mayawati-led government to pay the journalist Rs. 5 lakh as compensation. The NHRC observed “that the approach of the administration as well as the senior police officials has been… to trivialise the gravity of violation of human rights of Samiuddin, on one hand, and protect police officials…”

I called Samiuddin last week. Here is where he stands, a decade later. The State is yet to file an FIR on his application against the accused policemen. He has not received the promised Rs. 5 lakh as compensation. The police protection he had been provided between 2006 and 2007 has been withdrawn and his pleas for its restoration have fallen on deaf ears. He continues to receive death threats. “I live in constant fear. I don’t know when I will be bumped off,” he said.

Samiuddin’s story sums up the attitude of our political class towards journalists, especially in the hinterland, and their disregard for the recommendations or orders from independent panels.

But his is not a stray case as recent news indicate. Television journalist Ashok Namdev was brutally attacked by alleged members of the sand mafia in Chitrakoot. Deepak Mishra was shot at in Kanpur by men on motorbikes for his reporting on gambling dens. Haider Khan was brutally assaulted, tied to a motorcycle and dragged for about 100 metres, allegedly for his report on dubious land deals in Pilibhit. And then, of course, the appalling deaths of freelance journalist Jagendra Singh of Shahjahanpur and Sandeep Kothari of Madhya Pradesh, both burnt alive, were also in the headlines.

Dangerous terrain

India ranks quite high (13) in the Committee for Protection of Journalists’ annual impunity index. This expains why many think that justice will be denied in >Jagendra’s case. But of course political considerations are at play. In the backwaters of Uttar Pradesh, the political and economic stakes are high. It’s a lethal mix of power, poverty, mafia, criminalised politics, corrupt policing and caste dynamics.

A news report finds that U.P. accounted for 74 per cent of the total attacks on journalists last year. The number of convictions: zero. Nationally, in the past 25 years, 79 journalists have been killed on duty, according to PCI figures.

But the numbers don’t really reflect the underlying fault lines in U.P. Scribes are intimidated, threatened, verbally and physically abused, coerced, hounded and booked on false cases regularly. In many instances, the State government and police are complicit. The most vulnerable are independent journalists or those operating at the district or tehsil levels, the so-called “local” journalists. They have little organisational backing or any hope of grievance redress.

With the emergence of social media, the stage for conflict has expanded. Journalists discouraged from chasing ‘sensitive’ stories have found that they can use the Internet medium to blog on various issues. Reporters in the smallest districts command a ready audience for their posts, sometimes disagreeing with their publications’ views. Dissent and propaganda travel far and quickly, making one popular or notorious, and also vulnerable.

Regional journalists are poorly paid, have very little job security, are ill-trained, randomly recruited and sacked, and exploited by scribes from big centres. They are often expected to do extra-journalistic assignments, usually unethical, or lobbying work. Even stringers employed by big publications are often paid so little that it barely covers their travel expenses.

In this difficult climate, it is a fight for survival for the journalists. There has been a steady growth of farzi patrakars (pseudo scribes), who take to journalism simply to gain access to power, position, institutions, and the privileges that come with a press card and a press sticker on the vehicle. In U.P., these privileges could mean a free bus ride or lunch. The unfortunate truth is that many of these scribes are deeply involved in corruption, provocation, false stories, trolling and blackmail. Many are hand-in-glove with criminal gangs. Some senior crime reporters I knew in Allahabad had a stake in business in the city’s red light area. In Sonbhadra, notorious for its sand mafia and illegal sand trade, journalists own ‘pattas’ (leases) for illegal sand mining. Some journalists have been found complicit in attacks on other journalists. In sum, scribes are today no longer perceived as independent or impartial, even if we discount derogatory campaigns against them.

Given these complications and the political equations, there is no single remedy to the situation. As expected, the recent cases have triggered stray debates on journalists’ safety. But little has been achieved besides outrage. Senior journalists have called for a “national safety plan” for scribes, while others call for the empowerment of press panels. In U.P., the government is mulling a helpline for aggrieved journalists. The mere fact that such a measure is required in a democracy is a reflection of corroding values.

The record of such government measures is not too promising either. Last year, the U.P. government set up a committee for journalists led by top mandarins and scribes. However, its members did not meet even once. Despite assurances from successive governments, there is no will or mechanism in place to protect journalists. Demands for police protection are almost never met, unless some political affiliation or influence is invoked. As crimes go unpunished, honest and independent local journalists become disheartened while the corrupt get stronger. It’s time that the journalist fraternity stands up for its weaker sections while also amending its ills.

omar.rashid@thehindu.co.in

This article had erroneously named the organisation as Community for Protection of Journalists. It is Committee for Protection of Journalists. The error is regretted.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 11:19:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/For-regional-journalists-it%E2%80%99s-a-fight-for-survival/article10899626.ece

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