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A strong culture of impunity, enjoyed by the powerful in India, is dismantling the very foundations of a thriving media in the world’s largest democracy.

Left to right: Akshay Yadav. Jagendra Singh. Umesh Rajput. Sumit Galhotra/ Committee to Protect Journalists.

For the past two decades the organisation tracked journalist killings in India and observed a curious pattern. Since 1992, 27 journalists were murdered with corruption and politics being identified as the two deadliest beats in the country.

To investigate why reportage on corruption and politics in India had killed almost the same number of journalists that war reportage in Afghanistan had in the same period, I set out with CPJ’s senior research associate, Sumit Galhotra.

The three-week long reporting expedition took us to narrow lanes of Shahjahanpur in volatile eastern Uttar Pradesh and dingy offices of Hindi news dailies in Chhattisgarh. We spoke to a wide range of journalists, editors, media analysts and lawyers on what makes it easy to get away with murder of journalists.

We discovered that a strong culture of impunity, enjoyed by the powerful, dismantled the very foundations of a thriving media in the world’s largest democracy.

I have tried to summarise our findings and place our work in context in this short article. The full report can be read here.

Regional language journalists have it hardest

According to the Registrar of Newspapers for India’s 2011 report, India has 82,237 newspapers. More than 32,000 of those are in Hindi and only about 11,000 in English. Numbers of other regional language publications are significantly higher.  Similarly, the viewership for Hindi news channels far surpass the viewership figures of English ones.

Since the reach and impact of Hindi media was much higher, three journalists who worked in small-town India for Hindi news outlets became our case-studies. Ironically, despite the smaller reach, English language journalists in India carry a clout that gives them a layer of protection, which Hindi journalists lack.

Reporting on powerful men who live in the same village becomes dangerous. Therefore, many of them prefer to ignore the issues that matter, while some others sell-out.

The few journalists who persevere become targets. For those that dare to report on important issues, passion is the only fuel. Financial return for a local journalist is negligible. What makes matters worse is that almost all of them are freelance journalists, with no backing from a particular organisation. If attacked, the journalists are left to fend for themselves by the publishers.

The journalists we profiled in our report belonged to the third category. All three of them exposed the powerful people in their articles, and eventually all three met their deaths.

Freelancer Jagendra Singh, who died from his injuries after allegedly being set on fire by the police in June 2015, was reporting on allegations that a local minister was involved in land grabs and a rape.

Before he was shot dead in January 2011, Umesh Rajput was reporting on allegations of medical negligence and claims that the son of a politician was involved in an illegal gambling business.

Investigative reporter Akshay Singh was working on a story linked to the US$1 billion Vyapam admissions racket when he died unexpectedly in July 2015.”

There is another deeper reason for journalists who cover local issues to be targets. While urban Indians need not come into regular contact with government institutions, in rural India it is almost impossible to survive without the state. For instance, village-dwellers come into direct contact with their elected representatives to demand basic infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals etc. Contrarily, in the cities, many don’t vote in local elections at all. In such a situation, the role of journalists who live in small towns and report on local goings-on becomes crucial.

It is curious that the larger media fraternity does little to raise the issue of journalist safety. While there are fragmented efforts in different corners of the country to unite journalists under a network and fight for safety, there is no concerted pan-India movement. For instance, we met journalists in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh who were demanding a journalist protection law which would provide additional safety to those who report from conflict areas. That was just a sliver of the larger demand that should be made.

The most important step that the government could take in order to protect journalists is to ensure they are given a free hand to function. By not punishing any of the accused in the killings of 27 Indian journalists, the establishment is sending a covert message. Killing for journalists for doing their jobs is not okay. And that should be made clear.

No women journalists

All the stakeholders we spoke to were men. My co-author and I felt the gender imbalance starkly. However, it is one aspect we could not focus on in any detail in the report as the format of the report was case study based.

Most journalists in villages are men. The reason for this is two-fold. Literacy rates are much higher amongst men and mobility is easier for men in the rural parts. Travelling in over-crowded buses, walking long distances and speaking to strangers do not come naturally for rural women. Traditional roles of patriarchy are still entrenched.

For a small number of women who dare to report from the villages, there have been repeated threats to their lives and safety. Many women work in collectives, specifically from rural areas. Khabar Lahariya from Uttar Pradesh and Navodayam from Andhra Pradesh, being two of the most well known. Their reach is limited and they are constantly struggling to raise money. They face regular threats of sexual violence and attacks to their families.

Physical threats to journalists are one of the main reasons for influential regional language media being shaken to its very foundation. In order for India’s democracy to survive it is essential to have a vibrant media that instils restraint in the minds of the transgressors.

However, in this young democracy where institutions are still trying to stabilise, having a weak media is a death blow.

Published in: Open Democracy
Published on: 2 November 2016