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Protect the messenger

On September 2, Krishna Kumar Singh landed up at the post-mortem facility in Chunar, Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, for a routine assignment. There he noticed the family of a woman, who had allegedly hanged herself, misbehaving with the doctors. As the scuffle grew, the staff called for additional security. The gathering slowly turned into a mob.

Given his 18 years of experience as a tehsil correspondent for a Hindi daily, Singh’s instinct was to record the scene on camera. His action promptly angered the mob. Unlike Pawan Jaiswal, the journalist who had been charged the same day with criminal conspiracy for reporting that a primary school in the State was serving rotis and salt in its mid-day meal to children, Singh was physically assaulted in front of helpless policemen. He was whisked away to safety only after much humiliation. Though the U.P. police lodged an FIR against the assaulters, which Singh claims included supporters of a State BJP Minister, no arrests have been made yet.

This is not new to Singh. Over the years, his reports on corruption, including on a cartridges scam and illegal land allocation, have sent officials to prison. When the Samajwadi Party government was in power, Singh recalls being thrashed in a police station by the land mafia. But the latest assault has especially shaken him. Even his organisation does not support him now, he says.

Threats, abuse and intimidation

There are many regional journalists like Singh in India who work at the district and tehsil levels in the Hindi hinterland without proper security. In exchange for doing their job, they face intimidation, threats, abuse, coercion and false police cases. A year ago, when Jaiswal reported on illegal mining, the land mafia apparently warned him that “even the brakes of trucks can fail”. Such journalists often have little organisational backing or hope that their grievances will be redressed. Unlike journalists in the English language media, they are more vulnerable as regional bureaus are known to often turn the other way if they land in a controversy.

For a large and politically significant State like U.P., stringers and credible reporters at the lowest administrative levels are extremely important for State- or national-level news organisations. Away from the safety net that is Lucknow, it is these reporters who handle all the risks that come with reporting on contentious issues which go on to occupy the national spotlight. Despite this, they are poorly paid, have few rights or statutory entitlements, randomly sacked, and sometimes not even issued proper identity cards. This leaves them vulnerable to administrative excesses, political pressure and corruption.

“Earlier, mainstream media houses recruited professionals like lawyers and teachers to report at the district level for a nominal wage,” says Nagendra Pratap, former Editor of a Hindi daily in Varanasi and Gorakhpur. “But over time, newspapers and TV channels have started roping in contributors who are often poorly trained and lack other sources of income, without upgrading their pay structure.” This pushes some journalists to seek official and political patronage for survival. Hemant Tiwari, Uttar Pradesh Accredited Correspondents Committee president, admits that at the district level even the staff reporters of well-known Hindi dailies are asked to bring in advertisement revenue, while stringers work for commissions.

The Jaiswal episode brought a lot of condemnation for the U.P. government and police, but it has not been a deterrent. A few days later, the Azamgarh police arrested a stringer working with a Hindi daily after he clicked photographs of children mopping the floor of their school. The police alleged that the scribe was engaging in extortion, but his colleagues contended that he was falsely implicated due to a grudge nursed against him by the local station house officer. On September 7, five journalists in Bijnor were booked for ‘promoting enmity’ after they reported that a Dalit family had put its ‘house on sale’ after being denied water from a village hand pump. The police alleged that the reporters had concocted the story to show the administration in poor light.

Showing solidarity

In all these cases, journalists staged protests, but little has been achieved. The daily nature of news, conflicting business interests, toothless journalist organisations, and a disconnect between the mainstream English language press and the regional press hinders any united and sustained call for action. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, India ranks 140 out of 180 countries. At such a bleak time, it is crucial for the media to rise above these factors, show solidarity towards its own, and constantly question the excesses of state power, while improving working conditions for those on the margins. After all, what is at stake is truth itself.

omar.rashid@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 10:55:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/protect-the-messenger/article29432590.ece

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