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Making India safe for journalists

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-09-2017 Roshan Kishore

New Delhi: The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh has reignited the debate on freedom of the press and the freedom of speech in the country, although the motives behind her killing are yet to be established.

According to the not-for-profit organization, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), between 1992 and 2017, 28 journalists were murdered in a premeditated or spontaneous act in direct relation to their work in India. Lankesh is the latest addition to the list. These figures do not include those killed in military crossfire or while covering deadly assignments such as violent demonstrations. Among the major economies of the world belonging to the G-20 group, India has witnessed the fourth highest number of such killings related to journalistic work, behind Mexico (38), Russia (38), and Brazil (37).

More worryingly, India features in the list of 13 high-impunity countries where an overwhelmingly large proportion of such murders have remained unsolved, according to a 2016 CPJ report. Keeping India company in this list are countries such as Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan. Most journalists who have been murdered for their work covered politics and corruption.

Another community which has been targeted is that of Right to Information (RTI) activists. An Indian Express article by the political scientists Christophe Jaffrolete and Basim U. Nissa points out that 69 RTI activists have been killed in India so far since the act was passed in 2005, and hundreds have faced assault. The article notes that journalists are among some of the most dedicated RTI activists and have faced the brunt of such attacks. Many of the murders of RTI activists have also remained unsolved.

Death is the ultimate price journalists, writers, and whistleblowers pay for challenging powerful vested interests or for expressing dissent. And while such murders represent the most extreme form of attack on journalists and writers, less extreme forms of attacks such as death threats and abuses are common. The advent of social media has only exacerbated the problem, with women journalists facing the brunt of the attacks on social media.

When journalists raise such issues, they are often told that the rise in such abuses or attacks at least partly reflects the declining credibility of the Indian media.

However, the rising reach of Indian media over the past few decades has been accompanied by greater trust in it, data from successive rounds of the World Values Survey show. It is nobody’s case that Indian journalists are infallible, but the long-term trends suggest that their credibility has been rising over time.

As the charts illustrate, trust in the Indian media has risen sharply since the mid-1990s, when state monopoly over the broadcast news medium was broken. Confidence in the press was higher in India than in several other countries surveyed, the data shows.

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The so-called paid-media narrative has only served to embolden the attackers of free speech.

The conventional channel of criminal defamation charges also continues to be deployed to silence or intimidate journalists. Commentators have lamented the fact that the country’s highest court continues to endorse this draconian legal recourse.

All political parties are equally to blame. CPJ’s list of 28 journalists referred to above is spread across states ruled by all shades of political parties. Twenty-seven of them are listed under the ‘complete impunity’ category, implying that no convictions have been obtained in these cases.

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To stop the assaults on journalists and writers, and to ensure justice when such assaults do take place, the country requires legal and institutional reforms as well as measures to plug weaknesses in policing. But above all, this requires greater political commitment to protect free speech and the freedom of the press.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi really wants to build a “New India” free from deprivation and injustices of the past, and the BJP wants to own the tag of the “party with a difference”, they must walk the talk and show initiative on this. They cannot seek cover in the past sins of earlier regimes, or those of other parties.

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