India: Journalists on Edge

India, where journalism has always been a hazardous profession, has become a killing-field, with eight murdered in the first nine months of 2017. That followed the murders of six in 2016 and five in 2015. Two were killed in 2014 and 11 in 2013.

Across the country, reporters are also regularly beaten, often by the police, for unflattering articles. On Sept. 26, for instance, local police in the town of Varkala on India’s southern tip state of Kerala beat up journalist Sanjeev Gopalan, a reporter for a weekly, because of a story a colleague had written accusing the police of failing to protect two woman who complained of harassment. On Sept. 29, the New York-based organization Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that authorities move quickly to identify those responsible for sending threats to at least five reporters providing critical coverage of the government and ensure the journalists' safety.

The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers ranks India 136th of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought from the national debate. The organization said self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and that journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.

Although the country has witnessed journalist murders regularly, it was the Sept. 5 death of Gauri Lankesh, a fierce critic of the proposition that a majority of the population should assert primacy merely on numbers, that has galvanized public concern. Lankesh, one of India’s most prominent independent journalists, was shot to death as she got out of her car to open the gate of her home in Banglaru (formerly Bangalore), rousing massive protests across the country and condemnation from international press protection organizations. Civil society groups including Rashtriya Swayang Swwak (RSS) and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to the streets demanding justice.

Lankesh edited and published Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada-language weekly tabloid known for covering issues such as communal violence and the caste system. Her brother said Gauri had received voluminous hate mail from Hindu extremists. Her lawyer, B.T. Venkatesh, alleged in an interview that her murder “was a pre-planned and sinister attack by Hindu terror units.”

So far, no one has been identified as Lankesh’s killer, a common outcome in India when journalists are murdered. The Committee to Protect Journalists says there has never been a single conviction in 27 cases of journalists murdered for their work in India since 1992. In 2016, the press organization urged the central government to bring together journalists, scholars and experts on freedom of expression to submit draft proposals for a national-level journalist safety and protection mechanism.

Two weeks after Lankesh’s murder, Shantanu Bhowmik, a young television reporter in Tripura, on the extreme eastern side of the country near Myanmar, was beaten to death by a mob as he filmed a violent protest by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, opponents of the ruling Communist Party of India (M). His cameraman, fearing violence, had stopped filming and Shantanu was shooting the protest on his mobile phone when he was attacked.

Shantanu, 29, had previously worked for the Agartala-based local Bengali-language news channel Din-Raat. Three employees of an Argatala-based daily newspaper were hacked to death in their office earlier. They were Sujit Bhattacharya, Ranjit Chowdhury and Balaram Ghosh.

A series of protests have been organized by media organizations across the country demanding justice for Shantanu’s bereaved mother and sister. His killing was condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), all asking the Tripura government to thoroughly investigate Shantanu’s death.

“Critical journalists and activists have increasingly faced threats and attacks across India in recent years. State governments must act to protect those whose voices of dissent are being silenced,” said Asmita Basu, Program Director of Amnesty International India. “Investigations into these killings have been ineffective for too long.”

In India, all influential media bodies like Indian Newspaper Society, Editors’ Guild of India, Broadcast Editors' Association, Press Club of India, Indian Women's Press Corps, Federation of Press Clubs and various journalist unions strongly condemned the murder of Shantanu and urged that the government deliver justice. The Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, took note of Shantanu’s killing and sought a report from the Tripura government. Protest demonstrations have taken place across northeast India over the killing.

The string of killings began with Hari Prakash, 31, whose body was recovered in the Hazaribag locality of Jharkhand, 1,200 km southeast of New Delhi, on the second day of the new year. A day later, unidentified goons in Bihar shot dead Brijesh Kumar Singh, 28.

The third and fourth incidents were reported from Madhya Pradesh, where Shyam Sharma, 40, was stabbed to death at Anshul locality on May 15 and Kamlesh Jain, 42, was shot dead in Pipliyamandi locality May 31. Surender Singh Rana, 35, was shot dead in Haryana on July 29.

The killing of Bhattacharya, Chowdhury and Ghosh at Agartala broke as sensational news.

"Tripura thus repeated its shameful record on journo-murders,” said Rupam Barua of the Journalists’ Forum Assam. “Shantanu's killing on duty hours reminds us of the challenge and risks faced by the serious journalists of our region.”

As the year rolled on, the ninth case occurred in Punjab, where senior Journalist KJ Singh and his mother were found dead in his residence on Sept. 23. Singh, 66, who had worked for prestigious newspapers including The Tribune, The Indian Express and The Times of India, was found with his throat slit. With three months left in the year, the country could set a depressing modern record.