The nation was shocked earlier this month when Aaj Tak journalist Akshay Singh died in mysterious circumstances, allegedly of a heart attack, while investigating the Vyapam scam. The incident brought the insidious nature of the events surrounding the scam to popular attention but, if proved, it will hardly be the first time that a reporter has been killed in the line of duty. Just a few weeks ago, a journalist in Madhya Pradesh, Sandeep Kothari, was allegedly choked to death and then burnt by the mining mafia. Last week, News18 reported that a journalist, Shailesh Tiwari, had been shot dead in Jharkhand.
India getting as bad as Pakistan?
According to the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ), 61 journalists have been killed in India since 1992, including media workers and reporters who have died while on dangerous assignments as well as those deaths where the motive could not be confirmed.
Similarly, the IPI's "Death Watch" list gives the number of murders, confirmed or otherwise, between 1997 to 2014 as 49.
This is enough higher than the number of journalist deaths in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, among its neighbours, only Pakistan has a worse record, where, according to CPJ, 56 journalists have been killed (where the motive was confirmed).
Another media watchdog, Reporters without Borders , in its latest 2015 World Press Freedom Index, puts India #136 out of #180 countries. To put things into context, Pakistan is ranked #159, China is at #176, Bangladesh is at #146, while Afghanistan is ranked at #122 and Nepal is ranked at #105.
"There is no way that any civilised society can condone violence as a means of redress. Also, a democratic society that constitutionally guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression subject to reasonable restrictions, cannot consider physical as reasonable restriction. So, it is not so much whether the journalist who writes uncomfortable stories or asks unpleasant questions is a bonafide journalist in the eyes of the government as much as the unacceptability of violence as a means to silence journalists," says John Thomas, a former newspaper and news agency editor and currently journalism teacher in Bangalore.
An international media watch dog in its recent study compared India to Pakistan, a country, it says, long known for violence against journalists.
The Media Outrage
Following the case of Akshay Singh, there was a lot of mileage given to the Vyapam scam in the Indian media, but has there been enough spoken about journalist deaths in the country.
Indian journalists unite in the aftermath of the Vyapam scandal
Senior journalist and Editorial Director, The New Indian Express, Prabhu Chawla believes that it is a shared responsibility of both, government and media organisations to protect the lives of journalists. He said, “Journalists need protection and it should be provided by both the state and organisations.”
Veteran journalist of Jansatta, Om Thanvi, is skeptical of getting help from any source. He explained, “Guilds can only demand safety from the government, these organisations can’t provide safety themselves. On the other hand, our government will never protect the journalists who write against them. Rather they usually doubt their motive.”
Condemning the incident of Akshay Singh’s death, senior journalist and author, Saba Naqvi tweeted, “India one of most unsafe countries for journos and RTI campaigners where corruption is our terrorism.”
Consulting Editor of Times of India, Sagarika Ghose said, “This is the time for Editors Guild, Press Clubs and journalistic bodies to come together and take note of the deaths of journalists. Journalists have been burnt to death in UP, now this shocking case of Akshay Singh in MP. The circumstances of the death sound baffling: how can a fit and healthy person suddenly start frothing at the mouth and die before he reaches the hospital? Almost 40 are reported to have died in the Vyapam Scam already; this is turning out to be a killer scam.”
What needs to change
No doubt it is important that journalists are recognized by some government authority besides being acknowledged by the publication he/she reports for, for one's own safety. The government's statutory bodies like the Press Council (PCI), industry bodies like the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) should be able to intervene in defense of the publication and its staff under threat. The disinterest or hesitation of such bodies in being proactive by using their influence -- sadly that is what matters in our country -- has been the bane of the journalistic fraternity. The journalist unions once used to do that, at least in states where trade unions held sway. That has changed, now that unions have been emasculated.
It is therefore heartening that the PCI has demanded of the union government a law to make violence against journalists a cognizable offence and for special courts to try offences against journalists in a time-bound manner.
What is needed, more than anything, is for the "celebrity" journalists and the industry bodies to create a system where journalists feel safe following their quest for the truth. Reporters without Borders, in one of their reports stated that the apathy of Indian government organizations towards press institutions is alarming and this definitely is so. The quest for truth cannot exist in a society snowballed by legal and law enforcement processes that take years to resolve everything.
(Additional inputs by Abid Hassan)