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World Press Freedom Day: Journalists stress on need to stand with each other, re-examine archaic laws

New Delhi: On 14 June last year, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, was shot dead outside his office in Srinagar.

His death came barely two months after Sandeep Sharma, a reporter with a local news channel in Madhya Pradesh, who had been aggressively writing about illegal sand mafia, lost his life after being run over by a truck in Bhind.

Bukhari and Sharma were among the six journalists who lost their lives in 2018 after they drew attention to themselves for their body of work, noted the latest Press Freedom Index by non-profit organisation Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) in its recent report.

"These murders highlighted the many dangers Indian journalists face, especially those working for non-English-language media outlets in rural areas," the report, which came a few days ahead of Press Freedom Day on Friday, stated.

According to the report, India dropped from 133 on the Press Freedom Index in 2016 to 140 this year.

 World Press Freedom Day: Journalists stress on need to stand with each other, re-examine archaic laws

A protest by journalists. File image. AP

Members of the media have often been prey to threats of death and rape, legal notices, sedition charges, defamation suits and, in worst cases, murder for doing their job of speaking the truth, senior journalists said.

In the absence of any support from state agencies, they said it is their own community they look to for solidarity and support.

Sandhya Ravishankar, editor of The Lede, an online news portal, said it was a "sorry state of affairs" to have to do one's duty without the establishment's support, which often tends to protect, cover up for and extend support to criminals who harass journalists.

She herself has faced intimidation and subjected to threats after a series of stories on sand mafia in 2017, and all her complaints to the police went unheard.

"All of my complaints regarding harassment by a set of miners have been closed without even a pretense of an investigation," she told PTI.

In times like these, she said, it is important for the journalist fraternity to “stand by those who are doing the rough and dirty job and support those who are harassed”. RSF said in a statement that violence against journalists is the “most striking characteristic of the current state of press freedom in India”.

Chandan Tiwari, a journalist with a Ranchi-based Hindi daily, was beaten to death last year by unknown assailants. He had been asking for police protection for several months but was denied.
Another high profile case in recent times that made headlines was that of Gauri Lankesh who was killed outside her home in Bangalore by unknown assailants in 2017.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organisation, 50 Indian journalists have lost their lives doing their jobs since 1992.

Malini Subramaniam, an independent journalist known for her reports on human rights abuses and police violence, was labelled a “Maoist” and threatened by a mob which tried to burn her house down in Bastar in 2016.

She remembered feeling “vulnerable and scared” as she went to the police alone when nobody offered to stand by her. She eventually found support from the Editors Guild and other journalist bodies.

However, not all journalists are fortunate to get the kind of support she did.

"Nobody stands with stringers and freelancers once anything goes sideways and they are left to fend for themselves," Subramaniam said.

For instance, in 2015, Bastar-based stringer Santosh Yadav was arrested for his alleged connection with Naxalites, and later released on bail after a year by the Supreme Court for the lack of charges and evidence against him.

The situation may have not changed much since, some members of the fraternity said.

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Ritu Kapur, co-founder of news portal The Quint, suggested law reforms.

“We need to re-look at some archaic laws that are being used to suppress and financially bleed the media via litigation. We need reform in laws like the Official Secrets Act, criminal defamation laws and contempt of court by media," she said.

Self-censorship by the media is another concern raised by Subramaniam. It is about media houses consciously downplaying a news story for various reasons, including pressure from the corporate that owns the business, or influence from political parties, she said.

As a result of this, reporters tend to avoid taking up reporting assignments involving investigations fearing consequences.

"People sort of fear and think why get into all of this trouble. So, as a result of which more factual, ground-based reports suffer," Subramaniam said.

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Updated Date: May 03, 2019 22:49:30 IST