Is investigative reporting becoming increasingly dangerous in India? A report by media watchdog The Hoot, released on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, argues that that over the last 16 months, there has been an “overall sense of shrinking liberty not experienced in recent years.” The report states that at least 54 journalists have been victims to attacks and seven journalists have lost their lives – one of the seven deaths had journalism as the motive.
The data is for the period January 2016 to April 2017. However, the cases of violence against journalists could actually be much higher, given that in the period 2014 – 2015, there were 142 attacks, according to data released by MoS Home Hansraj Ahir.
Ironically, while the government and those in power assert and reiterate that freedom of press is essential for a democracy to function, a look at the data compiled by The Hoot shows that lawmakers and law-enforcers were among the top when it came to perpertrators of violence against journalists. Of the 54 cases of attacks, nine were by police personnel, nine by mobs protesting coverage, and eight cases of attacks by political workers. When it came to threats against journalists, six of the 25 cases were by political party workers and five were from Twitter trolls. The data didn’t reveal if the Twitter trolls that threatened abuse were political party supporters or unidentified individuals.
The Hoot’s ‘The Indian Freedom Report’ report consequently argues that the ‘attacks reveal a clear and persistent pattern’. “Investigative reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous. Journalists who venture out into the field to investigate any story, be it sand mining, stone quarrying, illegal construction, police brutality, medical negligence, an eviction drive, election campaigns, or civic administration corruption, are under attack,” it says.
Where does India rank globally?
That the independent functioning of journalists in India has only worsened has also been reported by international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In its 2017 report, RSF dropped India’s ranking by three spots compared to 2016. India now stands at 136 (42.94), with countries such as Palestine and Afghanistan fairing better. Norway tops the list while North Korea is the worst country to be a journalist in.
In its report on India, RSF claims journalists in India face a threat from ‘Modi’s nationalism’. With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals. Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which ‘sedition’ is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship.”
Law to protect journalists – a haphazard attempt?
In April this year, both Houses of legislature in Maharashtra passed the Maharashtra Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of violence and damage or loss to Property) Act, 2017. The Act came about after a media organisation, Patrakar Halla Virodhi Sanghatna, petitioned the Devendra Fadnavis government to ensure the protection of journalists when they’re out to do their duties.
The law, however, has faced its fair share of criticism with its critics arguing that it fails to include the most vulnerable section of journalists in its definition of media persons – stringers and freelancers. In its report on India, the Committee for Protection of Journalists, senior journalist P Sainath writes that journalists covering politics, crime and corruption are the ones who face the most threat, and more so if they are from the regional press and write in languages other than mainstream English in metropolitan cities.
“The language a reporter writes in and, most importantly, what they are writing about—especially if it challenges the powerful—increase the vulnerability. In the three case studies this report focuses on—and in CPJ’s list of 27 journalists who have been murdered in India in direct relation to their work since 1992—it is hard to find a single English-language reporter from a big city,” Sainath argues.
When it comes to penalisation, Section 3, 4 of the new law states that anyone who commits an ‘act of violence against a media person or damage or loss to the property of media person or media institution’ shall be punished with imprisonment of up to three years and/or a fine of up to Rs 50,000. Moreover, the case shall be probed by an investigating officer no less than a deputy superintendent of police. But, with section 326 (for grievous assault) and Section 307 (attempt to murder) already in existence, will the new law have any impact?
Questions are being raised whether journalists are entitled to a special provision, given that according to the Constitution, all citizens are equal and everyone is entitled to the freedom of speech of and expression (with reasonable restrictions) as stated under Article 19. While there is little doubt that journalists in India have been facing an unprecedented level of threats, do they qualify for a ‘special status’ of sorts? If so, what is it that makes journalists different from ‘other’ citizens?