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Arrest The Messenger, Kill The Message

Arrest The Messenger, Kill The Message

“A video journalist who had spotted an altercation between a group of people and policemen, and instinctively proceeded to film the incident, was slapped with charges like rioting and confined to a Noida police station overnight.” – The Times of India, Sept. 14

“Santosh Jaiswal [a journalist] was arrested… after he took photographs of school children mopping the floor and called up the police to apprise them of the illegal practice by school authorities.” – India Today, Sept. 9

“Police have booked five journalists after they reported that a Dalit family was allegedly prevented from drawing water from a hand pump by some people at Basi village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor.” – India Today, Sept. 9

“More than a week after a video showed children studying at a government school in Uttar Pradesh's Mirzapur district eating chappatis with salt as their mid-day meal, a flagship scheme of the central government, the state government has booked the journalist who reported the incident.” – News18, Sept. 2

“Former journalist at The Wire Hindi, Prashant Kanojia, was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police from his home in Delhi on Saturday afternoon. The arrest is apparently over social media posts he wrote about UP chief minister Adityanath.” – The Wire, June 9

An inordinate number of us must have seen these news stories and flipped the page, switched the channel or swiped the screen. In the daily news deluge that gets pushed our way in the form of endless notifications, not many of us would not have stopped to ponder about the significance of these events, much less made the connection that these incidents could be part of a clear pattern.

Pawan Kumar Jaiswal is the journalist against whom the police filed four criminal cases for producing a video report showing children in a school in Uttar Pradesh being served roti and salt. As per the state-run mid-day meal scheme, children in government schools across the country are supposed to be served a meal designed to fight malnutrition. By filing the report on the shoddy quality of meals children at the Mirzapur school were being fed, Jaiswal exposed mismanagement of funds, corruption, apathy of authorities and severe dereliction of duty. And perhaps that is the reason he was booked for defaming the state government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“The reality is that me and my family are living in fear. The district administration is behaving vindictively to save themselves and their role in the mismanagement of the midday meal scheme,” Jaiswal later told Al Jazeera.

When Jaiswal talks about fear, his concerns are based on good evidence and reason. We are a country where a person can be mob-lynched on mere suspicion. Imagine what ruffling the feathers of higher-ups can do!

On the evening of Sept. 5, 2017, Gauri Lankesh, the editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a weekly newspaper, was shot down by assassins outside her home in Bengaluru for using her tabloid to voice her dissent against the majoritarian politics sweeping the country.

On June 1, 2015, independent journalist Jagendra Singh was doused with petrol and set on fire by a gang of thugs. Singh had been facing threats for investigating alleged land grabs and illegal sand mining in northern India. Two weeks before he was murdered, Singh wrote in an online post: “Politicians, thugs, and police, all are after me. Writing the truth is weighing heavily on my life.”

Two other journalists investigating sand mining also met the same fate – Karun Misra in February 2016 and Sandeep Sharma in March 2018.

Death was the punishment meted out to these valiant figures for fearlessly putting their pen to paper. By snuffing out their voice, those that perpetrated these violent acts wanted to instill fear in the remaining scribes.

Fear. Fear of being arrested. Fear of being attacked. Fear of being killed.

By creating a climate of fear, the powers that be are effectively clamping down on media freedom.

But, talk to anyone in the media industry and you will know the fear quotient in journalism goes deeper than anyone outside the news business can imagine. Fear and uncertainty is part and parcel of the vocation. From low pay to unceasing and incessant demands to churn out clickbait stories to dealing with online trolling, there are a range of economic, political and cultural reasons that cause scribes to fear for their future in this job. Now add to this the fear of being arrested, attacked, or killed.

Any attack on journalists is a war on journalism and truth. It is also a sign of democratic progress being derailed.

When Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Burmese reporters for Reuters, were detained for investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, it sparked off a global appeal for their freedom. According to the state, the pair had been arrested for “possession of secret government documents.” Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, described their arrest as “an egregious attack on press freedom.” Journalists around the world, both working in crisis situations and in the supposed comfort of an office, acknowledged that they feared they may be next.

One cannot help but draw a parallel between the unlawful detention of the two Reuters scribes and some of the journalists arrested in India in recent times. In at least one of the incidents, the charges included conspiring against the state.

Though we may not be sliding toward the suspension of press freedom anytime soon, who is to say that time is not far away!

Over the years, India’s position as a country tolerant of varying opinions has fallen many ranks. In its Global Impunity Index, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks countries with the worst records of prosecuting the killers of journalists. For the 2018 edition of the list, the CPJ analyzed journalist murders in every nation between September 1, 2008 and August 31, 2018. With 18 unsolved cases of journalist death, India is placed at the fourteenth place in the list and is one of only four countries where the condition has “worsened.”

The other three countries with “worsened” status are Syria, Mexico and Afghanistan. The report also notes that majority of victims are local journalists and the “the suspects have the means and influence to circumvent justice through political influence, wealth or intimidation.”

There’s more of such grim statistics. In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Without Borders, India is placed at the 140th position out of 180 countries. The rank is quite out of keeping with India’s image as the world’s most populous democracy. In its country-specific description, the group notes, “Violence against journalists – including police violence, attacks by Maoist fighters, and reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt politicians – is one of the most striking characteristics of the current state of press freedom in India.”

While noting that the attacks against journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased in the run-up to general elections, the group goes on to explain how the continued stress on purging out “anti-national” elements has inspired a “coordinated hate campaign” against those journalists who do not toe the line when it comes to speaking or writing their mind.

The nationalism narrative is a clever tool by politicians to distract citizens from the real issues. Some may even think of this as a magician’s trick of misdirecting the audience’s attention to the left hand while the right hand does the work. This is a genius move. No doubts about that. However, this is a cause of concern in the matter we are dealing with now because some of the magician’s assistants are primetime news anchors and massive media organizations with the power to make or break people’s mindsets.

Journalists are not (and should not be) trumpet blowers. They are whistleblowers. They are watchdogs, not lapdogs. They ask hard and uncomfortable questions and demand answers that are backed by facts and conclusive evidences.

However, it would be very remiss of me if I do not note that in certain quarters (read channels, online portals and broadsheets) the meaning of journalism has whittled down to waxing eloquent about certain figures so as to avoiding getting on their wrong side.

The arrest of journalists in the heartland of the country is bad news, but the worst part is not everyone in the news business is speaking out against these horrifying actions. And by everyone I am referring to those journalists who have a platform to raise questions and initiate dialogue but resort to playing safe and derive benefits out of the win-win partnership they have entered with politicians/authorities.

One such luminary of mainstream journalism, upon the demise of a noted politician, recently tweeted a condolence message that detailed how she called him every morning for guidance. If a journo has to be spoon-fed by a politician on a daily basis, we can bid speaking truth to power a tearful goodbye.

Anyone who follows news – even if it’s just headlines – would know a large part of the news industry these days is a PR-orchestrated sham, serving up viral content, clickbait headlines and laudatory pieces on those who cannot be offended.

We cannot pin the blame on those who run the industry because money moves the business. However, there is a difference between puking what the government’s PR machinery is feeding and doing the hard work of digging through piles of information or struggling through umpteen leads before landing a breakthrough. And that is the difference we call quality journalism.

The lack of a strong statement from any of the top media outlets criticizing the suppression of journalists’ views leaves a gaping hole. This is a chance for scribes (and news outlets) to sound the alarm against the foes of freedom, a chance to join forces against the impunity that the offenders enjoy.

Perhaps it is the fear of what happens to well-meaning reporters that forces others in the profession to choose sides.

It is hardly a matter of surprise when Ravish Kumar in his Ramon Magsaysay Award acceptance speech says Indian journalism “is in a state of crisis which isn’t accidental or random but structural.” Describing the experience of being a journalist a “solitary endeavour,” Kumar highlighted how uncompromising journalists have been forced out of their jobs and women journalists are “speaking out and surviving on freelance earning.”

The important bit is the right-minded scribes are fighting against all odds to survive. Journalism is not a profession or a career; it is instead a way of fulfilling an obligation, while fighting a sustained state of perpetual uncertainty – both political and economic.

The arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo initiated a kind of unprecedented (and global) conversation on the safety of journalists and press freedom that we have not seen since. A remark that I read in one of the many reports about the incident has really stayed with me. “But we should not stop doing what we always do,” Aung Naing Soe, a photojournalist, told Time magazine. Soe himself had been in jail for allegedly flying a drone near the country’s parliament. His words are a clarion call for the righteous journalists still treading the path of fearless reporting. The very sanctity of reporting news is at stake and it’s now or never. Unless more urgency is brought to safety of journalists, we will soon be going past the point of no return and heading toward some of the most perilous moments in modern Indian journalism.

(Published on 23rd September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 39)