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The perils of being an Indian journalist

  • 26 June 2015
  • From the section India
Local journalists in Shahjahanpur in their shared office space
Shahjahanpur may be a small town by Indian standards, but it boasts of no fewer than 150 journalists

A small group of men in a dingy room busily tap on their keyboards on a hot afternoon in Shahjahanpur, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

The men, all journalists, share space with bulky cameras, tapes and tripods. It is suffocating, but no-one complains.

“This room is our shared office. We share resources and stories too,” one man, who works as a television reporter says with a wry smile.

Shahjahanpur may be a small town by Indian standards, (population 400,000 as of 2011) but it boasts of no fewer than 150 journalists. Poor communications and woefully inadequate infrastructure have not deterred them from their chosen profession.

They are currently working on a story that saw their town catapulted into the national spotlight.

Regular harassment

Ironically, it is about the death of one of their fraternity, Jagender Singh, who succumbed to burn injuries following a police raid on his house in early June.

Mr Singh had worked alongside them in this very room until a few years ago when he decided that social media was a more potent force than conventional platforms.

So he ran a Facebook page with thousands of followers, where he posted largely unconfirmed stories on corruption involving government officials and ministers.

Mr Singh’s son Rajan told the BBC that his father was regularly harassed by police officers at the behest of a state minister, Ram Murti Singh Verma, who was reportedly a regular subject of Mr Singh’s stories.

He alleged that, on the day his father died, a group of policemen acting on Mr Verma’s orders set him on fire during a raid on their home.

Jagender Singh’s wife (centre) and family are demanding the resignation of Mr Verma

In a final statement from his hospital bed, the journalist also accused Mr Verma of setting him on fire.

The minister has denied the allegations and the ruling Uttar Pradesh government has firmly stood behind him. The police have said that Mr Verma set himself on fire, and they tried to save him.

However, following pressure from national media, police have filed a First Information Report (FIR) on the murder, charging the minister as well as four policemen.

Mr Singh’s family have since received compensation from the state government, but have demanded the suspension of Mr Verma as a minister. They say they will return the money unless the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) takes over the investigation.

In another incident not long after the death of Mr Singh, another journalist, Sandeep Kothari from Madhya Pradesh in central India, was also burnt to death. Like Mr Singh, Mr Kothari wrote on corruption, but he specifically targeted the mining mafia.

Assault cases

The two deaths are the latest in a number of attacks on journalists working in towns outside India’s big cities. They say their confidence is shaken and that they fear for their lives.

The Press Council of India (PCI) says 79 journalists have been murdered in India over the past 25 years.

Sharat Pradhan, a senior journalist in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, once led a powerful journalists’ union but left in disgust because he said the organisation had failed to effectively raise security issues.

Mr Pradhan says there is no official data on attacks, but claims there have been several high profile cases of assaults in his state over the past few years.

In one incident, a journalist from Pilibhit town, also in Uttar Pradesh, was tied to a motorcycle and dragged for over a mile until he fell unconscious. No-one knows what prompted the attack.

In another instance, state reporter Nikhil Mishra says he was threatened after he wrote about destitute women being ill-treated in a shelter.

On 24 June, some local reporters who went to cover a public outcry against unsatisfactory road repair works say the contractors threatened them with dire consequences if they covered the event.

Local journalists say they cannot afford to antagonise local politicians and policemen

Shiv Kumar, a reporter who works in Shahjahanpur for a national TV channel says journalism has become risky.

“We often get threats. Police try to create rifts between journalists. It suits them if we are divided. We are used to intimidation from all sides”, he says.

“We have to work with them. We can’t antagonise them”, one small-town journalist said of their relationship with local politicians and policemen.

Sardar Sharma was Jagender Singh’s boss for three years. He lamented the loss of respect for journalists and blamed reporters themselves for the situation.

“There is a criminal nexus between many journalists, politicians and police. Such journalists are fake. They indulge in extortion and blackmail. They have let us down”, he said.

According to Mr Sharma, these “fake” journalists obtain ID cards from fly-by-night media companies by paying them between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees ($80-160).

He alleges that the state has a number of newspapers which have paltry circulation figures, but “thrive on government ads”.

Call for permanence

Nearly all journalists in small towns and cities like Shahjahanpur don’t have permanent jobs and work as freelancers.

Media companies pay them only for published stories. A Hindi daily newspaper pays 150 rupees for a published news story, while a TV channel pays 700 rupees per story. So even if a print journalist gets 10 stories published a month, he will still earn less than a daily wage worker.

In stark contrast, reporters who earn salaried incomes from reputed media outlets in big cities earn hundreds of times more.

Furthermore, when reporters are not attached to a specific media organisation, it is much easier to intimidate and threaten them.

Prem Shankar Gangwar works for a Delhi-based national TV channel. He argues that if local journalists are regularised and made permanent, “70% of our problems will be solved”.

Mohammed Irfan, an executive member of the National Union of Journalists, says this is a real concern for journalists.

“Our unions have raised these issues with management and with successive governments but so far without much success,” he says.

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