For more than one reason, India remains a hazardous place for hardliner journalists irrespective of the regimes in power at the national or province capitals. The populous country witnesses the murder of around five media persons annually and that has not been improved for decades. Till the last few years, Assam alone contributed major share of those journo victims. Need not to repeat that the trouble-torn State has lost over 30 editor-journalist-correspondents in the last three decades.
The vibrant media fraternity of India observed an unusual Gandhi Jayanti as scores of scribes across the country organized protest demonstrations in different locations with sole demand for ensuring safety, security and justice to the working journalists. Different press clubs, journo-media-bodies along with other institutions formed human chains, symbolic protests and also took out processions in support of the demand.
The reason behind demonstrating anger on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi on 2 October was the relentless violence which broke out against the journalists in different forms in the world’s largest democracy. 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 probable physical and intellectual challenges ahead of them in their professional careers.
The South-Asian nation witnessed three shocking news of journo-murders during September 2017 and the media fraternity along with their well-wishers seemingly rediscovered the vulnerability for the scribes who continue to pursue critical journalism. The ongoing year witnessed the killing of nine journalists in 10 months, but initially reactions to those killings from the authority and general populace remained lukewarm.
But the murder of Kannada editor-journalist Gauri Lankesh on September 5 at her Bengaluru (earlier known as Bangalore) residence aroused massive protests across the country. Publisher of ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’, a Kannada language newspaper in Karnataka of central India, Gauri was shot dead by unidentified gunmen, following which strong reactions were observed not only from inside the country but also various international organizations.
A Left ideology inclined journalist Gauri’s assassination tempted more civil society groups, which are predominantly against the Hindu nationalist ideologue like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) alongwith Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), to come to streets demanding justice. They were in hurry to make statements that the outspoken journalist was targeted by the ruling political elements as she used to criticize both RSS and BJP absolutely.
The Congress ruled Karnataka government head Siddaramaiah, who had a cordial relationship with Gauri, 55, declared her demise as a personal loss. But for reasons, best known to the Chief minister himself, the reactions against Gauri’s killer(s), were soft. Very recently the Karnataka police issued few sketches of suspected killers, but nobody has been arrested till date.
The protest-demonstrations against Gauri’s killing were so loud that even inspired a Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief minister to personally join in a demonstration at Agartala. The Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar’s participation in the protest program encouraged the media fraternity of northeast India and for which he was thoroughly appreciated.
But when a young television scribe of Tripura itself 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 for getting reactions from the amiable chief mister. Also in charge of State home portfolio, Sarkar later only pronounced a spongy reaction towards the incident.
In contrast, condemnations from various national and international media rights bodies were pouring against the brutal murder of Shantanu, 29, who used to work for an Agartala based Bengali-language cable news channel ‘Din-Raat’ (meaning day & night). A series of demonstrations were organized by various Indian media bodies across the country demanding justice to Shantanu.
On the fateful day, Shantanu went to cover a program of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which was protesting against the ruling CPI (M) and slowly it turned violent. Claimed 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 since the last few years.
The IPFT protest at Mandwai of west Tripura, bordering Bangladesh, soon witnessed the arrival of many cadres belonged to the CPI (M)’s tribal wing Tripura Rajya Upajati Ganamukti Parishad (TRUGP) at the location. Both the parties had already engaged in violent clashes on the previous day at the same location.
So the situation got charged and finally members of both IPFT and TRUGP turned aggressive and later emerged violent. Shantanu started shooting 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 the opponent & police forces and damaging vehicles on the roadside too, he was asked initially to stop recording.
Later the protesters chased him understandably for his smart phone and some of them turned unruly to attack Shantanu finally with stick-rods and other sharp items. Blood soaked Shantanu was rescued and sent to the hospital by the police, but till then he had stopped breathing.
His phone was not at the location and it is still missing, which was also recently admitted the State police chief Akhil Kumar Shukla.
Along with local media bodies, various international forums like New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Paris based Reporters sans/without Borders (RSF), Brussels based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) etc condoled and condemned the murder.
They unanimously asked the Tripura government to go for a thorough investigation into Shantanu’s death and simultaneously ensure safety to the working journalists.
All influential media bodies of the country like Editors’ Guild of India, Indian Newspaper Society, Broadcast Editors’ Association, Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps besides various journalist unions strongly condemned the murder of Shantanu and urged the Manik Sarkar government help delivering 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 media bodies of northeast India came put with the protest demonstrations against the killing of Shantanu and demanding a high level probe (preferably by Central Bureau of Investigation).
Extending moral supports to the Tripura journalists for justice, the media bodies asked the government to compensate the family of Shantanu 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 scribe killings began with Hari Prakash (killed on January 2) and it continued with the murders of Brajesh Kumar Singh (January 3), Shyam Sharma (May 15), Kamlesh Jain (May 31), Surender Singh Rana (July 29), Gauri Lankesh (September 5), Shantanu Bhowmik (September 20), KJ Singh (September 23) and lately Rajesh Mishra (October 21).
India is ranked 136th among 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index (2017) and it is just ahead of troubled neighbours like Pakistan (139th), Sri Lanka (141) and Bangladesh (146). Norway tops the list of media freedom index, where one party-ruled North Korea (180) is placed at its bottom. India’s other neighbours namely Bhutan (84), Nepal (100), Maldives (117), Afghanistan (120) and Myanmar (131) are ahead of it, while Tibet/China is placed on 176th position.
The one billion plus nation 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 including three Agartala-based media employees Sujit Bhattacharya (proofreader), Ranjit Chowdhury (manager) and Balaram Ghosh (driver), who were stabbed to death in the office premises of Tripura’s Bengali newspaper ‘Dainik Ganadoot’.
Assam, which publishes over 25 morning daily newspapers and supports many satellite news channels, witnessed more journo-murder on average than any other States in the country. The insurgency and unrest among various groups always put tremendous pressure & challenges for the serious journalists. Most of the victims in Assam faced threats from insurgents, surrendered militants and also counter-insurgency forces.
Some of the victim editor-journalist-correspondents of the State include Kamala Saikia, Punarmal Agarwala, Pabitra Narayan, Dipak Swargiary, Parag Kumar Das, Manik Deuri, Panja Ali, Nurul Haque, Ratneswar Sarma Shastri, Dinesh Brahma, Indramohan Hakacham, Prahlad Gowala, Bodosa Narzary, Mohammad Muslemuddin, Jagajit Saikia, Anil Majumdar (2009) etc. But surprisingly enough, the land of Bhagawan Vishnu, Mahamuni Buddha and Gandhi Mahatma has not succeeded in resolving any of the journo-murder cases legally or logically.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Assam.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. TIME8 neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)