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'Hatred for journalism threatens Democracy': Reporters Without Borders asks Indian govt to condemn and question abuse of journalists

The Paris-based media watch group Reporters Without Borders has expressed serious concern at an "alarming deterioration in the working environment of journalists in India" and demanded that the government ensure the safety of journalists who are feeling threatened.

The watchdog's report, which is exclusively on India, recorded the "increase in breaches of press freedom" in the country in the past six months. With seven journalists killed in the past 18 months and a sharp rise in online abuse and harassment, India is on 138th position on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, having dropped two places since 2017, the report said, adding that the "situation has continued to deteriorate".

The report said that at least three journalists were killed in India in 2017 and that a fourth case is still under investigation. In 2018, the situation appears to have worsened significantly, with four journalists killed in the first six months of the year. "The hate speech directed towards journalists has increased massively, causing serious concern for their safety," the report further added.

The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre has not yet responded to the report.

"With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals," the report said.

 Hatred for journalism threatens Democracy: Reporters Without Borders asks Indian govt to condemn and question abuse of journalists

File image of Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari. Facebook

The countries are ranked on "abuses and environment indicators", which contribute to the country's evaluation for the index and according to the report, in India it shows a "negative trend" and unless authorities take steps to remedy the situation, India's rankings will decline further in 2019.

The watchdog mentioned Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukhari's assasination in June this year and said that while in 2017 three journalists were killed in connection with their work, the "situation appears to have worsened significantly" in 2018.

The report cited other journalists who were killed because of the stories that they were following. "On 26 March, Sandeep Sharma, who had been investigating illegal sand mining, was crushed to death by a garbage truck in Madhya Pradesh state in central India. A day earlier, two other journalists, Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh, sub-editors with the Dainik Bhaskar daily, were deliberately run over and killed by an SUV in Bihar. On 22 June, Satyendra Gangwar was shot and wounded in northern Uttar Pradesh, near the Nepal border, by members of the mining mafia, for an article which he had been investigating, and which was also responsible for an earlier assault on him in March. On 18 June, Suman Debnath, who was investigating petroleum theft in Tripura, was almost killed when two men tried to slit his throat. On 17 April, in the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, the home of Patricia Mukhim, editor of Shillong Times, was attacked with a kerosene bomb."

The report said that hostility from political leaders and parties is not limited to "authoritarian countries" such as Turkey and Egypt, which have been ranked at 157 and 161 respectively. "Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which 'sedition' is punishable by life imprisonment. No journalist has so far been convicted of sedition but the threat encourages self-censorship," the report added.

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The report cited the example of TV journalist Ravish Kumar, who had disclosed that the death threats he had been receiving on his phone since 2015 had increased sharply in numbers and their level of hostility during the previous month. "The start of the wave of threats against Kumar coincided with the publication of his book The Free Voice in which he describes the disturbing decline in press freedom in Modi's India, which he describes as a 'republic of fear'."

The RSF is an international non-profit, non-governmental organisation that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press.

Indian columnist Neerja Choudhary said the government was not acting as it should be given the rise in attacks on journalists. "If the government was serious about the freedom of press, the media can't be treated like an upstart," she said. "Those who want to stifle dissenting voices are getting emboldened as nobody is brought to book."

On 3 July, the general secretary of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, wrote to Modi, telling him that an incident report had been issued in relation to press freedom in the country, and asking him to take urgent action. An incident report is issued when events are observed that could affect a country's ranking based on one or more of the indicators that are used in the evaluation for the World Press Freedom Index.

The group called on representatives of the government and the ruling BJP to "condemn in the strongest terms online campaigns of hate and harassment aimed at journalists".

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jul 05, 2018 11:55:45 IST