As the world’s largest democracy, it is important that India act as a role model in many aspects. Considering ‘Media as Fourth pillar of its State’, India should be in forefront in safeguarding its media and promoting press freedom on the international stage. As a founding member of the Community of Democracies, India has committed to uphold the freedom of speech and expression; freedom of press; and freedom of transparency as core principles. For the matter of fact, freedom of expression is also guaranteed under ‘Article 19’ of its constitution. However, heinous murders of journalists, activists and whistle-blowers in past two decades have brought a big question mark over existence of freedom of expression and thus, the Indian democratic principles.
A long queue of journalists at rest, but not with peace
The crime, chilling and macabre has become a challenge to the sovereignty of the state; freedom of thought; and freedom of individual activism. It looks like a philosophy that one who speaks against the ideologies of powerful sections of society, would be pressured, beaten, attacked and even murdered. Various media watch groups such as National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have revealed the shocking data, listing 40 journalists being killed, of which 27 murdered in direct retaliation for their work since 1992. NCRB reports 142 cases of attacks against journalists within a span of two years i.e 2014-16.
To name a few, assassination of Gauri Lankesh is the most recent mishap, which took place on September 5, outside her home in Bengaluru. The 55-year old activist-journalist, pierced with four bullets, was certainly a courageous figure who fought for the rights of poors, women, farmers, Dalits and other minority sections. Lankesh always stood up boldly when it came to speak up for her most cherished values of secularism, social equality, rationalism, humaneness and rising Hindutva dominance. The long line of murdered journalists includes MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and many more. While Pansare was a communist, Dabholkar was a rationalist who fought for social evils and superstitions. Unlike the other activists, Kalburgi was a typical traditional scholar, totally unconnected to the mire of cultural politics. His writings often highlighted the existing myths, stereotypes and prejudices blindly followed by the society. He was neither polemical nor provocative with his research and/or ideology. He made his researches depend largely on the empirical method of compiling information from various resources and drawing reasonable inferences. Since he did not make any major attempts at theory building, there was very little or no ideological aggressiveness in his writings. Thus, the ferocious attack on person like Kalburgi is unexplainable.
The similarity between the killings of the distinguished and outspoken academic MM Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, Narender Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and many others was the unapologetic plunge they took into activism against the existing social evils such as discrimination, communalism and rising tide of Hindutva.
One might question that why were they killed?
The simple answer would have been that they were floundering on these issues. They all were fearlessly outspoken and stuck to their mission without compromise. In spite of constant death threats from various individuals and organisations, all these murdered journalists persisted in the movement to help vulnerable people rid from being exploited. They identified the weaker sections of the society falling prey of superstitions; and following gurus, godmen, tantriks etc.
Another common aspect to be analysed in the recent spate of attacks on journalists is that all those were the rural and small town journalists, working in the vernacular media. As compared to the English language, publications in local languages reach wider audiences and therefor play a substantial role in shaping the public opinion. Being part of local society, journalists pointing out bigotries often become subject of abhorrence of riled public. Since they are in easy reach, they become vulnerable and hence are at greater risk of being attacked in retaliation for their work.
A critical point to be noted is that these dignitaries were killed not for their distinguished stances or their journalist profession, but because they demonstrated the courage of stepping out of the evil indigenous customs and acted as activists, pointing to the prejudices.
As MM Kalburgi once said, “Journalism is turning into a dangerous profession. In an emotionally driven country, people are unwilling to accept any truth that upset their beliefs and prejudices. Attacks become usual when a debate is shifted from the academic intellectual domain to the public domain in which truth and objectivity are not seen as values”. Thus, there is absolutely no doubt that it’s not merely the human’s murder but also murder of ideology.
Such attacks on media not only causes human and ideological losses, but simultaneously puts a big question mark on transparency of democratic principles. The culture of impunity has made the press vulnerable to threats and attacks. Witnessing the brutalities and injustice, reporters become unwilling to cover the rural India. Moreover, a negative image of the society is perceived by the international community. Killing and such attempts for biased reasons projects India’s image as backward, illiterate, rigid and intolerant society. This negative image of the society apparently gives an impression of India being an “unsafe country” and this may have adverse effect on our already meagre tourism revenue.
There are possible ways to address this challenge
CPJ report that “Indian journalists tend to devalue the attacks on themselves as a community and fail to speak out in one voice” is distressing.
The self-defeating fragmentation and polarisation in the media fraternity have resulted in the lack of cohesive reply to such attacks. For this matter, the inbuilt discriminations and social and economic limitations within the media industry needs to be resolved. A system free from biases, prejudices and socio-political chauvinism, where information is collected and documented with better coordination, needs to be built. This may possibly develop a unified, cohesive and purposive response to attacks on journalists. The security of journalists in not only their own responsibility, but the government’s too. The government and police needs to act more fairly and quickly. The unsolved murder cases need to be pushed through the courts faster so that the killers are brought to justice. There is a need to check the politicians’ supporters, the role of vigilante groups and of emboldened student groups who target journalists and systematically hound and seek to muzzle them.
India as a whole, needs to uphold its commitment to the democratic principles and establish a national-level journalist safety mechanism in order to combat impunity.
A failure to do so won’t just endanger fellow journalists, but journalism itself.