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India: No country for true journalists

The increasingly hostile environment for journalists, sanctioned by official inaction, means muscle may win out over truth

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

The varied manifestations of Indian journalism are visible in the violence inflicted upon muckrakers by those who fear scrutiny. With freelance journalists using social media like Facebook to publish stories that might otherwise be squashed by editors, the potential for violence is greater than ever.

The vernacular press tells a different story from the English dailies and TV channels. In satellite towns, or ‘purs’, journalism operates within an opaque realm of extortion, blackmail and personal vendettas. It is this world that is deemed unsafe by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in their annual report, “Freedom Frontier: South Asia Press Freedom Report 2014-2015”. The report assesses the freedom and safety of journalists in the region. It claims Pakistan is the least safe place for journalists, but India is also high on the list.

The deaths of two journalists—Jagendra Singh and Sandeep Kothari —in the past few months from  have brought this disturbing reality into public scrutiny. At no point can these deaths be justified, but they bring to light everyday life in highly-politicised inner India. Shahajahapur of Uttar Pradesh and Katangi tehsil from Madhya Pradesh respectively,

Jagendra Singh owned a kirana store and moonlighted as a freelance journalist in the town of Shahjahapur, Uttar Pradesh. He was burned alive on the first of June and succumbed to the injuries a week later.
His death has officially been called a suicide, but Jagendra’s son vociferously claims that he would not have
killed himself.

The English language press, including even the New York Times, has referred to Singh as a freelance journalist. A peek into his life illustrates what that means in the hinterland. Unable to keep a job with a newspaper or magazine because of his temper and his problems with authority,  he started his own publication on Facebook: the ‘Shahjahpur Samachar’. He reported on a variety of topics, but his dal-roti was exposing discrepancies in government schemes. One of his targets was Minister of Backward Class Welfare, Ram Murti Singh Verma, who allegedly ordered his murder.

Disputing claims that he committed suicide, Singh’s family claims that Jagendra was burnt alive by the police, acting on Verma’s orders. Singh, on his deathbed, maintained that Verma was incensed over a report that suggested Verma was embezzling funds from a scheme to issue Above Poverty Line cards to 27,500 people. However, Jagendra’s Facebook reports comprised little more than allegations based on information purportedly obtained from unnamed sources. Verma says the reports have no basis in fact, stating that Singh never bothered to get his side of the story.

During this period, another journalist in Shajahpur was kidnapped. When he was released, he stated that he believed that Jagendra was behind it. Jagendra also had another five cases registered against him, though none ever went to trial.

In Katangi Tehsil, Madhya Pradesh, rumours surrounded Sandeep Kothari, as well. Though never convicted of any crime, Kothari spent 17 months in jail and had 20 criminal cases filed against him, including rape, blackmail and extortion. Before his own brush with the law, however, Kothari had written and filed cases against local manganese and sand mining operations. Sandeep Kothari went missing on June 19, and police discovered his burnt body on June 22.  Police have registered a case, though no formal charges have been made.

Another bone-chilling case has made bigger waves. Senior TV reporter with the India Today group, Akshay Singh, was investigating the so-called Vyapam admissions scam when he died suddenly, following an interview with Om Prakash Damor, whom Singh believed could shed some light on the case. The autopsy report claims he died of a heart attack, but Damor saw him frothing at the mouth. With the mainstream media’s tally of some 46 deaths connected to the alleged scam since the investigation began, the journalist’s death, too, seems
overly convenient.

Om Prakash, father of Namrata Damor—a medical student whose death in 2012 was instrumental in bringing the Vyapam scam under scrutiny—claims that just after their meeting, Akshay’s lips began shaking violently and then he collapsed, frothing at the mouth.. When he was rushed to a local private hospital, the nurses on examination found he had no pulse.

Singh’s death is being clubbed with other deaths linked to the scam. Though Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has ordered the SIT to look into his death, the opposition is pressuring him to bring in the CBI.  Meanwhile, the India Today group says the Chouhan-led government has  claimed that there have been no questions raised about the circumstances of any of the 40-odd deaths linked to the scam. On the contrary, India Today says Namrata Damor’s family has filed a court petition demanding a probe into the circumstances surrounding the death of their daughter.

Like the deaths of Jagendra Singh and Sandeep Kothari, Akshay’s death remains a mystery. Whether or not foul play was involved, the case has drawn attention to what appears to be a worsening climate for investigative journalists, of any stripe. The thinly veiled official sanction of violence could lead to self-censorship and create an emergency-like situation where press freedom could find itself severely curtailed.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2015

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