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Paying with lives: 21 journalists killed during 2014-19, 30 since 2010, just 3 convictions

Counterview Desk
A new study, “Getting Away with Murder: A study of the Killings of and Attacks on Journalists in India, 2014-19, and Justice Delivery in These Cases" by Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar, pointing out that there were 40 killings of journalists and documenting 198 serious attacks on journalists in between 2014-19, including 36 in 2019, has said that journalism has become a dangerous profession in India.
“Journalists have had to pay with their lives for their investigative reports on illegal activities, land grab, corruption, educational malpractices and mafia gangs controlling the trade in anything from sand, crushed stones and timber to liquor, water tankers and oil”, the study, sponsored by the Thakur Family Foundation, says.

Excerpts:

A majority of the journalists attacked or killed belong to small towns and villages, working with regional media as correspondents or stringers. They are the primary information-gatherers, reporters and messengers on corruption, malpractices and unlawful activities of business people, powerful politicians, police and security forces. Powerful criminal gangs wield political clout as they flout the law while law-enforcers and the civic administration are either indifferent or complicit in this criminal activity.
Journalists are bogged down in vexatious and protracted legal battles over their investigative reports, combating defamation cases or are embroiled in criminal cases. Major investigative stories, like the report in online portal “The Wire”, on the growth of the business firm run by Jay Amit Shah, son of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, are sought to be curbed with defamation cases and multi-crore legal notices.
Self-censorship has also become the norm, given the insidious political pressure on journalists and reports of resignations of senior editors in the run up to the last general election. This, even as they are derided and devalued as ‘presstitutes’ by leading members of the government.
Save for media houses considered ‘friendly’ to the government, media houses found themselves being ignored by the government or subtly threatened with the denial of access and advertising if they fail to comply.
With the increasing corporatisation of the media, journalists on the frontlines of newsgathering are dogged by acute and increasing precarity, i.e. lack of job-security and increasing job losses. There has been almost a wholesale contractualisation and casualisation of journalistic work over the past two decades, with the “mofussil” journalists being at the bottom of the heap as stringers.
A majority of print and broadcast media journalists work outside the purview and the relative security that was hitherto assured by the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1955 and its provision for a periodic industry-wise Wage Board.
In spite of the existence of these legal protections, journalists invariably work on a retainership for a pittance, and forced to supplement their income by other means of livelihood. They are poorly paid, have no job security or benefits and little or no support from employers or media houses they contribute to.
But the ultimate censorship is the killings, that have claimed as victims both prominent senior journalists and editors in state capitals, to locally influential journalists as well as the foot-soldiers –stringers and freelancers- in small districts and towns across India.

Killings

A study on the deaths and attacks on journalists in India between 2014-19 documented at least 40 killings of journalists, 21 of which were directly linked to their professional work. The motive for the remaining 19 killings was either not linked to their work or was unclear.
In 2019 alone, there were six cases of deaths of journalists, but preliminary investigations indicate that only one was linked to the journalist’s professional work.
In the latest case, senior environmental and wildlife journalist Naresh Mitra succumbed to injuries brought about by a possible assault on December 9, 2019. Mitra was found bleeding and unconscious near his office in Guwahati on November 22, 2019 and it was initially believed a vehicle hit him from behind.
However, according to news reports, doctors said the injuries could have been caused by an assault. Attempts to obtain further information on the case at the time of finalisation of this report proved impossible, with the curfew and clampdown on online communication due to the agitation in Assam over the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill from December 10, 2019.

Attacks

Journalists have become an easy target of attacks by mobs or security forces during reportage of major current news events, as in the attacks on the media covering the arrests of JNU students in February 2016; the multiple attacks on journalists in Kashmir while covering encounters; or more recently, the attacks on the media in Assam and in Delhi in the wake of the protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act.
There were 198 instances of attacks on journalists between 2014-19, 63 of which were targeted attacks due to their investigative work. In almost every instance of an attack or killing of a journalist, doubts are cast on whether they are killed due to their work or for other reasons. The testimonies of the journalists who survived near-fatal attacks provide valuable clues to the work they had undertaken.
Data on attacks on journalists is hard to come by. There is no official record on the attacks on journalists put out by the government, either in different states or at the Centre. In 2014, the government announced that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) would collate data separately but a satisfactory format has still not been devised.
There is no further proceedings in murder of 'Rising Kashmir' editor Shujaat Bukhari after the abrogation of Article 370
Nonetheless, in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the-then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir, disclosed that there were a total of 204 cases registered and 140 persons arrested for attacks on media persons (under sections 325, 326, [related to causing grievous hurt) and 326A & 326B [related to acid attacks] IPC) during 2014-2017.
The figure would probably be higher if it includes many more sections of the IPC than those cited above. The most obvious would have been Sec 307 (attempt to murder), which, given the seriousness of the attacks, would easily apply in several cases.
Another reason for under-reporting is because journalists who are attacked sometimes do not file complaints since they just want to get the story done or do not think the process is worth their while. So, while the attacks take place, there is no official record of it.
In any case, the Union Government’s way of dealing with inconvenient data is to make it disappear. In October 2019, the National Crime Records Bureau's 2017 Crime in India report that was published after a year's delay left out hate crime and lynchings because it found the available data on it “unreliable” and “vague”.
The NCRB report also left out data on crimes against journalists, whistleblowers, RTI activists and crimes committed by the vigilante khap panchayats, religious leaders and illegal migrants for the same reason.
The nexus between political power and the law-enforcing administration is often very strong and underscores the impunity that accompanies these cases. In other cases, investigating agencies are either indifferent or complicit. 

Deaths: Near zero rate of conviction

The result is a very poor rate of conviction. Since 2010, there have been over 30 cases of deaths of journalists due to their professional work. Convictions have been secured in only three of these cases. Of the 21 deaths followed up for the period 2014-19, only one, that of Tarun Acharya, secured a conviction. In all the other cases, FIRs have been registered or trials have commenced but we are nowhere near justice.
Apart from the killing of editors Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru, Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar and the death of Doordarshan cameraperson Achyutananda Sahu in an attack by a Maoist group on security forces in Chhattisgarh, all other cases of killings of journalists pertain to those working as staffers or stringers for regional language publications, reporting on crime and corruption in the Indian hinterland. 
At least seven cases pertain to journalists pursuing investigative work on illegal activities, including reports on sand mining, illicit liquor trade, land grab, water mafia etc.
The perpetrators varied from gangs indulging in illegal activities, business and trade to politicians, security forces, members of right-wing Hindutva organisations, militant groups and non-state actors.

Justice delivery for killing of journalists

Thorough investigation, a speedy trial and conviction should be the norm, not the exception. But, in several cases, investigation is slow, uneven and inconsistent. In some instances, like in the death of Amit Topno in Jharkhand, who was writing stories connected to the Adivasi-led Pathalgadi movement, the challenge begins with trying to establish the motive for the killing.
Despite the testimonies of colleagues and family members, the reason for the killing is attributed to various factors from a property dispute, past enmity, a family dispute or even marital discord.
The struggle to secure justice is often lonely. Supporters of former RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin killed Rajdeo Ranjan, bureau chief of Hindi daily “Hindustan”, on May 13, 2016. It took the dogged persistence of his wife, Asha Ranjan, to get a CBI investigation going in the case. In March 2019, she travelled from Siwan to Muzaffarpur to appear before a special CBI court to record her statement. But there was no hearing as the judge was not attending court that day.
The trial was proceeding at a good pace and at least ten witnesses had deposed before the court. Suddenly, in October 2019, she found that the CBI counsel had stopped attending the court. Date after date was given and nothing transpired. 
After the fourth such date in November, she asked a police officer present what happened. And that’s when she learnt that, sometime in October, a decision was taken that CBI case hearings would be dealt with by the special crime branch of the states.
“Abhi mujhe lag raha hai ki main jaha se shuru kiya, wahi wapas aa gayi hun (I now feel that I have reached right back to where I started),” she said a day after yet another date for a hearing in the case. There’s no clarity why the case was transferred back to the state police and no clarity as to whether this decision pertained to all cases or only that related to Rajdeo Ranjan.
Worse, there was no attempt to even convey the decision to her. No acknowledgment of her tenacity, no sensitivity to her plight and definitely no concern for the immense effort it took to travel around 130 km from Siwan where she lives and works.
More than two years after “Gauri Lankesh Patrike” editor and trenchant critic of rightwing forces, Gauri Lankesh, was shot dead outside her residence in Bengaluru in September 2017, two of the named accused are still at large.
In November 2018, the main charge-sheet, of 9,325 pages, and a supplementary chargesheet, named 18 accused. Members of various Hindutva organisations, including the Sanathan Sanstha, Hindu Janajagruti and the Shiv Prathistan Hindustan, they are also said to be involved in the murders of rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar and writer MM Kalburgi.
Police are yet to recover the murder weapons, said to be country-made 7.65 mm guns, which they said were thrown in the Vasai Creek, along the Mumbai-Thane highway. While the Special Investigation Team (SIT) said that its investigations are still on, a team of defense lawyers has already begun contesting the charges.
In the case of the killing of “Rising Kashmir” editor and peace campaigner Shujaat Bukhari and two of his bodyguards in Srinagar in June 2018, police arrested four persons, according to information submitted to the National Human Rights Commission. A prime suspect, said to be a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was killed in an encounter by security forces in November 2018.
It must be noted that it took a year and eight hearings of the NHRC from June 25, 2018, and a threat of coercive action against the state Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, to elicit any official response on the killing.
But, following the abrogation of Article 370 and the lockdown in Kashmir, further investigations appear to be at a standstill. The State Human Rights Commission was wound up on October 31, 2019, when the state became a Union Territory, and no further proceedings have been recorded. There is also no response to the second part of the NHRC notice.
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