Recounting tales of how they have, and are still, being persecuted by the state and even non-state actors for fearlessly pursuing the journalism of courage, a number of journalists from all across India resolved to fight back the forces of intimidation, censorship, collusion and, of course, impunity.
The statements of determination and unwavering dedication to the pursuit of speaking truth to power were expressed at a recently concluded two-day convention to protest against assaults and threats to journalists organised by media-watch organisation MediaVigil in partnership with some news organisations and with support from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In his inaugural address, Lalit Surjan, Chief Editor of the Deshbandhu group of publications, spoke about how crony capitalism is being sheltered by the media and is making it capitulate before vested corporate and political interests, thereby acting as a huge roadblock for honest journalists to carry out their duty. He spoke about examining the possibilities of setting up cooperative interventions, adopting formats like guerrilla journalism to carry news from local sources to people, as well as demanding a Third Press Commission, and urged journalists to be brave and keep fighting the good fight.
Actor Prakash Raj, a close friend of journalist Gauri Lankesh who was assassinated by Hindutva forces, said that he came to speak not as a journalist but as a citizen deeply perturbed by the state of the media in present times. He said that buying the silence of journalists was not a new phenomenon, but now every time he opens a newspaper or switches on a news channel, he feels afraid that he is being hoodwinked into believing utter falsehood.
Accounts of persecution, murders, state censorship
Overall, 48 journalists have been killed in the country between 1992 and 2018 out of the 1,321 scribes killed worldwide during the same period. Others are still bearing the brunt of various other forms of intimidation and harassment.
Journalist KK Shahina, who as a reporter for investigative journalism magazine Tehelka in 2010, blew the lid off the fabricated case against Abdul Nasser Maudani who was charged with masterminding the Bangalore bomb blasts of 2008, recounted her still continuing ordeal of being slapped with charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
“It is piquant as well as tragic when a journalist becomes known not for the work she has done, but the persecution she has faced,” she said, and went on to describe the unmitigated bias she faced from the police and politicians because she is a Muslim.
“I was interrogated for a total of 80 hours, and all through this period the police repeatedly asked me if I was related to Maudani or had tried to defend him because she was a Muslim.” When she, on the advice of Sevanti Ninan, the Editor of media-watch website The Hoot, went to meet a prominent Congress politician to seek protection against persecution for some articles she had written, the first thing he asked her was whether she was a Muslim! “I remained nonplussed and emphatically said that I am a journalist, my faith – whether I practise it or not – is irrelevant,” she said. Even eight years after being booked, the case against Shahina is still going on – the trial is yet to start and she has to shuttle between two cities to attend hearings.
Asha Ranjan, whose intrepid journalist husband Rajdeo Ranjan from Bihar was on the hit list of Rashtriya Janata Dal MP from Siwan, Shahabuddin (a former gang lord), and was brutally murdered, broke down while telling the audience about her travails in securing justice. While Shahabuddin is finally in jail, the CBI is dragging the case before the Supreme Court and two of the killers have secured bail and started intimidating her into silence, she said.
“In Kashmir, bullets decide the headlines and pellets from security forces’ dreaded weapons decide the introduction,” said Kashmir journalist Jalil Rathore who was a close colleague of Shujaat Bukhari, the widely respected Editor of Rising Kashmir who was killed by unknown assailants earlier this year.
“Doing truthful journalism in Kashmir is akin to being between a rock and a hard place – one is caught between toeing the line of the military and paramilitary forces and agents of the state, and the militants. Added to this is the violence perpetrated by the Ikhwanis (a group of surrendered militants) who enjoy the government’s patronage, and who have kidnapped and killed many a journalist,” he said. Rathore also spoke about how the government imposes censorship by choking newspapers and channels which don’t do its bidding, of advertisements, and this becomes particularly critical in Kashmir where there is no industry that will place ads. He gave the example of Kashmir Times, which for eight long years had to struggle without getting a single government advertisement.
“Does the law know only how to lock journalists in jails, have them stripped and beaten mercilessly in custody?” asked Santosh Yadav, a journalist from Chhattisgarh, with deep anguish. He narrated how, on the orders of dreaded cop SRP Kalluri of Bastar, he has been persecuted since 2014 on charges of being a Naxalite. He spent 18 months in jail and had to endure brutal custodial torture. “The atrocities against Adivasis have sharply gone up after Narendra Modi came to power and BJP CM of Chhattisgarh Raman Singh became more emboldened to deprive Adivasis of their rights in the name of development,” he said, vowing to remain unfazed even if he has to suffer more at the hands of the state.
‘Republic of abuse’
Television journalist Ravish Kumar asserted that the discourse has become way more vitriolic since Narendra Modi stormed into power in 2014, and said how he tries his best not to be cowed down by the vicious online trolling he is subjected to by fanatical devotees of the PM and the ruling BJP.
Independent journalist Neha Dixit spoke about the travails of not having press accreditation or a press card, and lamented how Outlook magazine has left her in the lurch after some RSS members filed criminal charges against her for an investigative story about young girls being trafficked by Hindutva organisations. The magazine, after its former editor Krishna Prasad was sacked, no longer supports in fighting legal cases and, on top of it, has also not paid my dues, Dixit said. Not only that, she recounted how the Uttar Pradesh police was constantly threatening her for her reports on staged encounters and Muslims being slapped with fabricated charges under the National Security Act.
Senior journalist Nikhil Wagle, whose career has spanned 40 years and who also faces a lot of online abuse for speaking out against the ruling dispensation, agreed with Ravish Kumar that the polity has been poisoned after 2014, and that India has become a “republic of abuse”.
As Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan and veteran investigative journalist Josy Joseph, whose book A Feast of Vultures exposed the underbelly of crony capitalism in India, advised journalists how to remain steadfast in their work in the face of various kinds of pressure and censorship, one could muster courage from Lalit Surjan’s parting advice – “Be brave.”