The catch-22 of being a Jyotirmoy Dey

“Bullet #4 killed Dey,” reads the headline in Mid DAY the newspaper where journalist Jyotirmoy Dey worked.

This weekend Dey was gunned down by four men in the middle of the afternoon while riding his old battered Hero Honda. His wife was setting out lunch for him at home.

Five bullets struck him. The first three entered and exited his left arm. The fourth one, the forensics report says, was “lethal.”

Journalists protest Jyotirmoy Dey's killing in Mumbai. Shruti Dhapola/Firstpost

But what is really "lethal" for journalists like Dey is that they are the grunts on the frontlines of investigative journalism, far away from the media spotlight and the security that that attention might bestow.

“How can a journalist be made to feel so unsafe in his line of duty?” asked his wife Shubha. I think we need answers to this.”

The Catch-22

The answer is a bit of a conundrum. In the age of television and flashy sting operations, Dey, described as a quiet man who kept to himself, was not the celebrity journalist. That is the Catch-22 behind both his success and his tragic death.

Former colleague Abhisek Sharan remembers meeting him on a suburban railway platform at 11 pm at night. He was there to discreetly meet a contact. His job required that discretion. He spent his off-work time with his sources, listening to their stories. To build that trust  he needed not to draw attention to himself.

On the other hand, that discretion also left him exposed even though he tried to take precautions. Sharan writes “few knew where he stayed, few knew if he had a family in Mumbai.”

He might have been a legend in his field, a “guru” to younger reporters but Dey was hardly a household name before he was gunned down. If that fourth bullet had missed him, we in the media would not be paying devoting much space to the three that did strike his left arm.

There is a certain glamour to the investigative reporter, whether he is reaching into the underbelly of the mafia or into the secretive boardrooms of ruthless corporate honchos and politicians. In our popular imagination, it’s the man who sits by the phone and gets the tip from some whistle-blowing DeepThroat out there.

Police and impunity

The reality of the life of an investigative reporter is a little different. It’s about battered Hero Hondas, late night meetings with shady double-crossing sources,  and very little protection other than trusting your instincts and looking over your shoulder all the time.

“He would get threat calls at any time of the day,” remembered Smruti Koppikar, bureau chief at Outlook. “ We were once conducting a meeting with reporters when Dey got one such call and he simply said – ‘Don’t threaten me over the phone… confront me instead’ – and then got back to work.”

Stories like that one will now add to the legend of Jyotirmoy Dey. But it also illustrates the helplessness of the situation. What other option did Dey have anyway? Could he have gone to the police? An editorial in The Telegraph points out that imprisonments of journalists “often follow the exposures of human rights violations, killings and disappearances that lead back to the police or the relevant government.”

India, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, ranks 13th in the world on the Impunity Index which measures the degree to which a country can’t or won’t bring the killers of reporters to justice.  According to Moneycontrol.com, at least 125 journalists in Maharashtra alone received threats in the last few years.

An IBN Lokmat reporter was attacked by the oil mafia in March.

Last month a journalist from Zee TV was attacked allegedly by the builder mafia in South Mumbai.

Home Minister R R Patil had promised a protection law in 2004 after an attack on journalist Nikhil Wagle. Seven years later nothing has been done.

The police have promised to explore all angles from personal enmity to the oil mafia. But his MidDay colleague Tarakant Dwivedi alias Akela conjectured that it was not necessarily the oil mafia. “Some senior police officers may have been rubbed the wrong way by his stories,” Dwivedi told The Hindu. Dey had recently submitted a report to the State Home Minister showing the nexus between senior police officers and the underworld. That is a double whammy when it comes to your own personal safety.

Not enough protection to go around

The question now is what can be done once the protest marches are over? Could this moment of media attention be the catalyst for a Jyotirmoy Dey Act that could protect other journalists?

“Being abused or being beaten up is common in a profession like investigative journalism,” N A Ponappa, President of the Press Club of Bangalore told Mid DAY. “But it is high time that the government provides proper protection to journalists, who are fighting hard to reveal the truth.”

Yet the fact remains that even the Karnataka’s Lokayukta’s office cannot protect its own officers, the ones officially charged to investigate corruption. The state has not acted yet on a threat to them by a minister’s brother said Lokayukta Justice Hegde recently.  The police said there are too many policemen on security duty for VIPs and not enough protection for those who really need it.

“VIP security has become a fashion,” Justice Hegde told The Deccan Chronicle. “The DCP security at the Supreme Court used to send a note, requesting not to use the security staff for personal work.”

As the civil society champions in New Delhi roll up their sleeves to fight for a national Lokpal with real teeth, they should pause and consider the chilling effect of the murder of Jyotirmoy Dey on their  own fight. Will their Lokpal get the security he or she will need? And will they need to get it from the very government whose corruption they are probing?