Journo Deaths & Arrests in 2017: How Free Is Indian Press, Really?

Ranking an abysmal 136 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, India has some soul-searching to do.

5 min read
Journo Deaths & Arrests in 2017: How Free Is Indian Press, Really?

(This article was originally published on 31 December 2017. It is being republished to mark the World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.)

As the year 2017 bids adieu, India finds itself in a shameful position with this year’s tally of 12 journalists either murdered or killed in suspicious situations. The largest democracy in the world thus emerges as one of the most hazardous places for media persons after Mexico, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.

India’s troubled neighbour, Pakistan, lost seven professional journalists and a media student to assailants in the year in comparison. Its other neighbours, namely Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Maldives, witnessed the murder of one scribe each in the last 12 months. And tiny neighbours like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet (now under Chinese occupation) evaded journalist-killing incidents during this period altogether.


Murder of Gauri Lankesh Sparked Uncommon Outrage

The killing spree of media persons in India started with Hari Prakash (on 2 January) and by the end of 2017, the country lost Brajesh Kumar Singh (3 January), Shyam Sharma (15 May), Kamlesh Jain (31 May), Surender Singh Rana (29 July), Gauri Lankesh (5 September), Shantanu Bhowmik (20 September), KJ Singh (23 September), Rajesh Mishra (21 October), Sudip Datta Bhaumik (21 November), Naveen Gupta (30 November) and Rajesh Sheoran (21 December).

On average, the South Asian nation loses five to six journalists annually to assailants, where the perpetrators normally enjoy impunity as the public outbursts against the murders remain lukewarm. However, the murder of Kannada editor-journalist Gauri Lankesh at her Bengaluru residence sparked massive protests across the country.

A participant holds a placard with a photograph of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh at a protest demonstration against her killing in Bengaluru.
(Photo: AP)

As the news of Gauri’s murder by unidentified gunmen spread, it immediately caught the attention of various national and international media rights organisations. The incident was immediately condemned, and action against the culprits was demanded. Even the Communist leader and Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar was influenced by the protest-demonstrations.

He personally joined in a rally at Agartala demanding justice over Gauri’s brutal killing, but when the young television reporter from his State fell prey to mob violence, he preferred to remain silent.

The Tripura-based journalists, while strongly condemning the murder of Shantanu, had to demand a response from Sarkar.

Dismal Statistics

Later, another journalist’s (Sudip Datta) murder by a trooper belonging to the State police forces put Sarkar in an uncomfortable position. The otherwise popular chief minister, who also holds the State home portfolio, was taken to task as Tripura had earlier witnessed the murder of three media employees Sujit Bhattacharya, Ranjit Chowdhury and Balaram Ghosh together in 2013.

The central Indian States like Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, etc have remained killing field of journalists for years and most of the journo- casualties have been reported from this zone. Shockingly most of the cases have not been resolved and the victims’ families continue crying for justice.

India is ranked 136th among 180 countries in World Press Freedom Index (2017) of Reporters Sans Frontiers and the country is just ahead of its neighbours Pakistan (139), Sri Lanka (141) and Bangladesh (146).

Norway tops the media freedom index, whereas one party-ruled North Korea (180) is placed at the very bottom. Neighbouring countries like Bhutan (84), Nepal (100), Maldives (117), Afghanistan (120) and Myanmar (131) ensure better press freedom for their citizens than India does.

Pakistan lost seven journalists – Muhammad Jan (January 12), Taimoor Khan (February 12), Abdul Razzaque (May 17), Bakshish Ellahi (June 11), Haroon Khan (October 12), Samar Abbas & Utpal Das (untraced after abduction for many months now) along with a novice scribe (Mashal Khan) to assailants – while Bangladesh witnessed the murder of rural reporter Abdul Hakim Shimul on 3 February.


A Myanmar in crisis reported one journo murder (Wai Yan Heinn) on 16 April and the Maldives drew the attention of international media with the sensational killing of Yameen Rasheed, a journalist and human rights defender, on 23 April.

According to various international agencies, over 95 media persons spread across 28 countries were killed in connection with their professional work in 2017. The statistics were, however, higher in previous years (120 fatalities in 2016, 125 killed in 2015, 135 in 2014, 129 in 2013, 141 in 2012, 107 in 2011, 110 in 2010, 122 in 2009, etc).

The situation deteriorated in Mexico (14 incidents of journo killings), Syria (12), Iraq (9), Afghanistan (8), Yemen (8), the Philippines (6), Somalia (5), Honduras (4), Honduras (4), Nigeria (3), Russia (3), Turkey (3), Yemen (3), Guatemala (2), Peru (2), Dominican Republic (2), Colombia (2) etc. These emerged as the most dangerous countries for journalists in the bygone year.

The year also witnessed 262 journalists sent to the jails in different countries, a slight deterioration from 2016 when 259 media persons were imprisoned worldwide. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey still tops the list of detainees in 2017 with 73 scribes behind bars followed by China (41), Egypt (20), Eritrea (15), Vietnam (10), Azerbaijan (10), Uganda (8), Saudi Arabia (7), Bangladesh (4), Myanmar (3), Cambodia (2), Pakistan (2), India (2), etc.

A Different Gandhi Jayanti

In 2016, India witnessed the targeted killings of six working journalists, which was preceded by five cases in 2015. The country improved its statistics in 2014 with the murders of only two scribes, but the year 2013 reported the killings of 11 journalists including three media workers in northeast India.

The vibrant Indian media fraternity observed an unusual Gandhi Jayanti on 2 October this year to raise the pitch for ensuring safety, security and justice for working journalists across the country. Different press clubs, media bodies and civil society groups organised various demonstrations to push their demands.
5 out of 66 journalists killed are Indian.
(Photo: The Quint)

The vulnerable media community of the one-billion-strong nation continues itse pursuit of a national action plan to safeguard media persons along the same lines as military, police and doctors on duty. Their arguments are loud and clear – if the nation wants journalists to do the risky jobs for the greater good, their security, along with justice, must be ensured.

(The author is a Guwahati-based journalist and media rights activist.)

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