For more than one reason, India remains a hazardous place for hardcore journalists irrespective of the regimes in power at the national capital or province headquarters. The populous country witnesses the murder of five or more media persons annually and that has not been improved for decades. The land of Bhagawan Vishnu, Mahamuni Buddha and Gandhi Mahatma has not succeeded in resolving any of those journo-murder cases legally or logically.
The media fraternity of world’s largest democracy observed an unusual Gandhi Jayanti as scores of scribes across the country organized protest demonstrations in different locations. Their sole demand is to ensure safety, security and justice for working journalists. Different press clubs, journo-media-bodies along with other institutions formed human chains, symbolic protests and also organised processions in support of the demand.
The reason behind demonstrating anger on the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on 2 October was the relentless violence that broke out against journalists in different forms across the country. With the spirit of the lawyer turned journalist turned India’s Father of the Nation, the media fraternity also showed their commitment to defy all physical and intellectual challenges against them in their professional lives.
The south Asian nation witnessed shocking news of three journo-murders during September 2017. The media fraternity along with their well-wishers seemingly rediscovered the vulnerability for scribes who continue to pursue critical journalism. The year 2017 saw the killing of eight journalists in nine months, but as usual the initial reactions to those killings from authorities and the public remained lukewarm.
It was only Kannada editor-journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder on September 5 at her Bangaluru (earlier known as Bangalore) residence that aroused massive protests across the country. Publisher of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada language newspaper in Karnataka of central India, Ms Gauri was shot dead by unidentified gunmen, following which strong reactions were observed not only within India, but also various international organizations.
A Left ideology inclined journalist, Ms Gauri’s assassination tempted more civil society groups, which are predominantly against the Hindu nationalist ideologues like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) along with Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), to come to the streets demanding justice. The outspoken journalist was targeted by the ruling political elements as she used to criticize both RSS and BJP absolutely.
However, the Congress ruled Karnataka province government and its chief minister Siddaramaiah had a cordial relationship with Ms Gauri. Soon after her assassination, the province government chief announced her demise as a personal loss. But for reasons, best known to Siddaramaiah only, the chief minister’s reactions against the killer(s) of Ms Gauri, 55, were soft. So does the investigation process!
Protest-demonstrations were so loud that it inspired a Communist Party of India (Marxist) run Tripura government chief to personally join in a demonstration at Agartala. The chief minister Manik Sarkar’s participation in the protest program encouraged the media fraternity of northeast India and he was thoroughly appreciated for the gesture.
But when a young Tripura television scribe was beaten to death by a mob, the same CPI (M) chief minister remained silent. The Agartala based journalists, while condemning the murder of Shantanu Bhowmik on September 20, had to raise voices to get a reaction from Sarkar. Even then the chief minister, also in charge of the home portfolio, pronounced a spongy reaction towards the incident.
However, the condemnations from various national and international bodies were pouring against the brutal murder of Shantanu, 29, who used to work for an Agartala based Bengali-language cable news channel named Din-Raat. A series of protest programs were organized by various Indian media bodies across the country demanding justice to Shantanu’s bereaved mother and sister.
On the fateful day, Shantanu went to cover a program of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), protesting against the ruling CPI (M) and it slowly turned violent. Claiming to have support from the tribal population of Tripura, the IPFT maintains its demand for a separate homeland (read Twipraland) for the tribal people out of Tripura. The party, which has seemingly a political understanding with the BJP, continued its violent protests over the last few years.
The IPFT protest program at Mandwai, west Tripura, bordering Bangladesh, soon witnessed the arrival of many CPI (M) tribal wing cadres, Tripura Rajya Upajati Ganamukti Parishad (TRUGP) at the location. Both parties had already engaged in violent clashes on the previous day at the same location.
The situation soon became charged and finally members of both IPFT and TRUGP turned aggressive and later violent. Shantanu started videoing the violent activities with his mobile phone, as his lens-man avoided the professional camera for fear of abusive reactions from the agitators. As Shantanu started capturing the visuals of IPFT members attacking their opponents & police and also damaging vehicles on the roadside, he was asked initially to stop recording.
Later the protesters chased him for the phone and some of them turned unruly to finally attack Shantanu with stick-rods and other sharp items. A blood-soaked Shantanu was rescued and sent to the hospital by the police, but then he stopped breathing. His phone was however missing, which was also revealed by the State police chief Akhil Kumar Shukla.
Meanwhile, Shantanu’s killing was condemned and condoled in international forums like the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Pars based Reporters sans/without Borders (RSF), the Brussels based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) etc. Everyone asked the Tripura government for a ‘thorough investigation’ into the death of Shantanu to bring those responsible to justice and also ensure the future safety of journalists.
Amnesty International, in its condemnation statement pointed out that the killing of journalists cannot become the order of the day. State governments in India must do everything in their power to prevent journalists from becoming targets for their viewpoints or affiliations. Authorities must end impunity for these killings, it added. Condemning the killing of Shantanu, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said, “I trust the authorities will conduct an investigation into this killing and bring its perpetrators to justice.”
In India, all influential media bodies like Indian Newspaper Society, Editors’ Guild of India, Broadcast Editors’ Association, Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Federation of Press Clubs in India besides various journalist unions strongly condemned the murder of Shantanu. They urged the Manik Sarkar government help deliver justice. Even the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, took note of Shantanu’s killing and sought a report from the Tripura government.
All northeast India media bodies came out with the protest demonstrations against the killing of Shantanu and demanded a high level probe (preferably by Central Bureau of Investigation). Extending moral support to the Tripura journalists for justice, the media bodies asked the government to compensate Shantanu’s family adequately. They also urged the Union government in New Delhi to formulate a national action plan for delivering earliest justices to journo-victim families.
The string of India journo-killings began with Hari Prakash (killed on January 2) and the trend continued with the murder of Brajesh Kumar Singh (January 3), Shyam Sharma (May 15), Kamlesh Jain (May 31), Surender Singh Rana ( July 29), Ms Gauri, Shantanu and KJ Singh (September 23). India lost six journalists to assailants in 2016, which was preceded by five cases in 2015. It witnessed murders of two scribes in 2014, but the year 2013 reported as many as 11 journalists’ murders.
According to the RSF, India is ranked 136th among 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index (2017) barometer, which is just ahead of its neighbors like Pakistan (139th), Sri Lanka (141), Bangladesh (146) and China (176). Norway topped the list, and India’s neighbors including Bhutan (84), Nepal (100), Maldives (117), Afghanistan (120), Burma (131) etc are ahead of it. One party ruled North Korea (180) is at the bottom of the list, where Vietnam and China were placed at 175th and 176th positions respectively.