War on Journalists in India's Assam Region

Journalists in India’s northeastern province of Assam have come under unprecedented attack in recent months, with a young reporter killed on Sept. 8 and at least another 12 assaulted and beaten.

The latest attacks appear to be a byproduct of violence between Muslims and Bodos, a local indigenous group, which has torn up the state for months. So far at least 90 people have been killed and 400,000 have been rendered homeless.

The dead journalists across India so far include Chandrika Rai of the Hitavada daily, who was beaten to death on Feb. 18 along with his wife and two children in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh. Rajesh Mishra of the Media Raj weekly, also of Madhya Pradesh, was killed on March 2.

The third, a young reporter named Raihanul Nayum of Gana Chabuk, a weekly newspaper published in west Assam, was killed on Sept 8 when a mob turned violent after a Hindu temple and its deity, Maa Kaali, were damaged by protesters.

Journalists complain that authorities been reluctant to safeguard the interests of the media. Certainly, none of the perpetrators involved in the killings has been identified or arrested, nor have they in other incidents where scores of journalists have been beaten and harassed.

The violence against journalists reached a peak in late August, when the All Assam Minority Students Union protests in several cities. Demonstrators attacked the reporters covering the events, including Amulya Nath of News Live and Raj Kumar Sahu of DY365 TV, who were badly beaten and whose cameras were destroyed. A media truck was torched and four other journalists reported being victims of the violence.

Reporters say the pro-Islamic students union has been held responsible for many of the attacks, which included a mob that set upon journalists with sharpened stakes and other weapons during a strike on Aug. 28.

Reporters Without Borders later issued a statement saying it “deplores the threats and violence against journalists during the demonstrations” and called on authorities to condemn all such violence against journalists and to do whatever is necessary to prevent any recurrence.

Four local journalists’ organizations, the Journalists’ Forum Assam, Electronic Media Forum Assam, Assam Photo Journalists Association and Assam Union of Working Journalists, also issued statements condemning the violence and urging the authorities to identify those responsible. So far no comprehensive action has been taken, however.

The Islamist student union is not the only source of violence. Assam, which publishes nearly 25 dailies and supports six satellite channels, is becoming increasingly dangerous. The region is the focus of a long-running, confused and insurgency in which 15 armed outfits have been waging war against the Indian Union government and sometimes each other for a plethora of conflicting and sometimes bewildering demands varying from autonomy to self-rule. Surrendered militants and anti-insurgent security agencies have contributed to the danger, as has the so-called timber mafia, a multi-billion dollar business by individuals illegally harvesting timber.

As Asia Sentinel reported in 2009, the first journalist to die was Punarmal Agarwala, a rural correspondent for The Assam Tribune, who was killed in 1987 by militants belonging to the banned United Liberation Front of Asom. Raihanul’s killing brings the total of editors and reporters to have been murdered since 1991 to 25.

The Assam media fraternity has demanded a special protection law for journalists on duty. Not only the journalist community, human rights educator and advocates have also joined the chorus for a protection law for journalists on duty in Assam.

“The journalists, who are committed to the society, should be supported by a special law. Unless they feel secure, many journalists may not take the risk of reporting hard and risky issues and then we will be deprived of sensitive and brave journalism,” said Shyam Bhadra Medhi, a prominent human rights educator of northeast India.

Society, Medhi told Asia Sentinel, has a responsibility to support media persons as their contribution is essential for good governance in a democratic country like India.

The demand for a special protection law for journalists on duty has been pursued by many national media organizations of India including the National Union of Journalists. The Journalists’ Forum Assam recently sent a memorandum to the President of India for enacting a Working Journalist Protection Act at the earliest.