An instance of Media Massacre: On his Facebook profile, a journalist working for a Kanpur-based newspaper, wrote on June 14,2020 that an illegal construction by ‘famous land mafia’ had been demolished due to a report he had filed. He said the mafia was angered by this action and had registered a fake application against him to the district magistrate. Five days later, Mani Tripathi (the journalist) was shot by “unidentified persons”, allegedly at the behest of a ‘sand mafia’ and illegal land grabbers active in the region.
Uttar Pradesh: The Hot-Spot for Media Massacre
According to Reporters Without Borders, Uttar Pradesh is “one of the most dangerous regions for journalists, especially those who try to cover the sand mafia”. Tripathi’s killing occurred one day after police in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi registered an FIR against Scroll‘s executive editor Supriya Sharma for a report that said people in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s adopted village faced hunger during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Although, UP may be making ‘headlines’, the state doesn’t change much as one moves across other parts on the country. Of late, India has seen an extensive number of deaths, arrests, and clampdown on investigative and rationalist thought- journalists being the most affected strata.
A report – India: Media’s Crackdown During Covid-19 Lockdown – published recently states that as many as 55 journalists “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown just between March 25 and May 31, 2020.
The report said that as many as 22 FIRs were filed against various journalists during the period while at least 10 were arrested “and four others were saved from being arrested by the Supreme Court for performing their duties during the period”.
Infamous Murders of Media Persons
In September 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bengaluru. Her murder appeared similar to the killings of noted rationalists in the four preceding years—Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, were all, like Lankesh, shot dead.
To anyone privy of the diabolical state of tolerance in the country, these deaths were a few of many major impediments to the freedoms of thought, speech and belief in India today. According to the not-for-profit organization, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), between 1992 and 2017, 28 journalists were murdered in a premeditated or spontaneous act in direct relation to their work in India. It is to be noted that this list excludes the deaths that occurred while reporting from high-risk assignments like military crossfire reportage.
The Press Council of India’s report on “Safety of Journalists” states that 80 journalists have been killed in India since 1990, with conviction in only one case so far. India’s ratings in the annual World Press Index has been continuously sliding. The 2020 index, put together by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, has placed India in 142nd position, below neighbors Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, India ranks 13th in the Global Impunity Index (2019) that ranks the countries with the worst record of punishing the killers of journalists. That said, following a probe that lasted more than two-and-a-half-years, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigating the murder of activist-journalist Gauri Lankesh, finally submitted their final charge sheet in May 2020. The case is yet to come to trial.
Protecting the Free Media
Death is the ultimate price media persons, i.e. journalists, writers, and whistleblowers pay for challenging powerful vested interests or for expressing dissent. The media in India is evidently under siege from various quarters, ranging from politicians to police and local adversaries who often take to violence to silence critics.
Even as there is no outright censorship or governmental interference with press freedom, self-censorship imposes a legitimate threat to plurality of views in national discourse. Laws should exist not only to protect the space for the media to act independently but also to guard against the co-option of the media by the executive.
The day on which the Constitution was brought into force. The colonial experience of the Indians made them realize the crucial significance of the ‘Freedom of Press’. Such freedom was therefore incorporated in the Constitution; to empower the Press to disseminate knowledge to the masses and the Constituent Assembly thus, decided to safeguard this ‘Freedom of Press’ as a fundamental right. Although, the Indian Constitution does not expressly mention the liberty of the press, it is evident that the liberty of the press is included in the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a).
However, despite the growth in the number of newspapers, TV channels and increased access to the web space, freedom of speech and expression which is a fundamental right enshrined in the Indian Constitution (from which the freedom of the press and media derives) is being greatly compromised in India.
There is no nation-wide legislations for protecting journalists. Although, in April 2017 Maharashtra state legislature passed a law to protect journalists, making it the first State in the country to pass such a law. The law stipulates a jail term of up to three years for anyone convicted of physical violence against any media person. A similar enactment found place in Chhattisgarh state legislature too, where a committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Aftab Alam has drafted a Bill for the protection of media persons in 2019.
Impunity for crimes against the media fuels and perpetuates the cycle of violence and the resulting self-censorship deprives society of information and further affects press freedom. It is evident that the security of journalists and media has been at risk for a long time now; and that the problem isn’t just confined to any one country.
Whether it be the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi or state-granted death sentence to 4 journalists in Yemen, the international humanitarian laws have succumbed under political manoeuvering. It directly impacts the United Nations’ human rights based efforts to promote peace, security, and sustainable development. The same has been recognized by the UN while pursuing the cause of continually increasing deaths of media personnel globally.
UN released a framework of the Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. In it, actions are structured around six axes: standard-setting and policy making; awareness-raising; monitoring and reporting; capacity building; academic research; and coalition building. The UN Plan of Action is the first concerted effort within the UN system to address these issues via a multi-stakeholder and holistic approach and brings together UN bodies, national authorities, media, and civil society organizations.
Similarly, the International Press Institute (IPI) is another global organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of press freedom and the improvement of journalism practices. In September 2018, UN Human Rights Council passed its fourth resolution governing safety of journalists as part of a series dating back to 2012.
82 States supported the resolution as cosponsors. Numbered at 39/6, the resolution places renewed emphasis on prevention. Its new and updated elements provide practical ways States can create a more enabling environment for a free, independent, pluralistic and diverse media to flourish – online and offline.
While efforts by the international community have been substantial in giving voice to the fatal ‘problems’ faced by the media, as well as providing a safe space for journalistic freedom to flourish without fear; the ‘declarations’ have undeniably fallen short of national co-operation. Despite the growing voices and condemnation, the respective countries’ laws fail to protect rights and bring justice to the affected. Clamping down on dissent has taken a country’s politic only so far, especially when dissent becomes an act of faith.
Prevention of Media Massacre for a Free World
Freedom will be “a short-lived possession” unless the people are informed, Thomas Jefferson once said. The press is sometimes called the fourth estate. Though it is not formally recognized as a part of a political system, it does suggest an important, coherent, and independent force in a society. It doesn’t have aspirations same as the government, although that might not be true anymore.
Nonetheless, their freedom ought to be a fundamental one. Because even as there is no outright censorship or governmental interference with press freedom, self-censorship imposes a legitimate threat to plurality of views in national discourse. Laws should exist not only to protect the space for the media to act independently but also to guard against the co-option of the media by the executive. Largely, part the threat to the Indian media’s ability to preserve plurality of views is due to a flawed regulatory architecture that does little to protect press freedom and more to silence it.
It is important to also note that it is not just governments that threaten press freedom; criminal gangs, terrorists and political factions can all seek to silence or manipulate the media. No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or forced to disappear, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed anywhere.
World Press Freedom Day has come and gone. Other issues now clamor for attention. For journalists who are no longer with us, such as those killed in the unprecedented attacks due to their journalistic integrity, there is only silence. This ought not be so.