How Journalists, Mostly from Vernacular Media, Investigate at Their Own Risk
On June 14, Shubham Mani Tripathi, a young journalist based in Uttar Pradesh state’s Unnao district posted on his Facebook that he could be killed for his news reports on the state’s sand mafia. Exactly five days later, the 25-year-old was murdered in the broad daylight near the Ganga ghat of Unnao.
Tripathi’s death made it to the international media. Even the Director-General of UNESCO condemned his assassination. However, not much has changed. Especially in Unnao.
Sankalp Dixit, the Unnao bureau chief of a television news channel, called Hindi Khabar, also reported on the death of his friend and colleague Tripathi. Dixit, a journalist since he was 20 years old, changed his Twitter cover image to his portrait photo that faded into a quote: Na darenge, na darayenge, danke ki chot pe sach dikhaynge (Neither will we be afraid nor will we scare anyone. But we will report the truth with transparency.)
When I asked Dixit if Tripathi’s death scared him, he narrated a story that his mother told him after the death of another journalist, Ratan Singh, earlier. Singh was chased and shot dead by three men in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district in August.
“My mother was shocked and worried.” She held Dixit’s hand and said, “Beta tum kabhi aisi koi khabar mat karna jis se tumhari jaan ko khatra ho (Son, please don’t report on issues that could endanger your life.)”
Dixit said, “I was stunned but somehow, I gathered my thoughts and told her that it is my job to talk about the society’s shortcomings. Every one of those issues is bound to anger someone. I may not be killed or attacked but some kind of danger is to be expected.”
It is not easy to be a journalist in Uttar Pradesh. After Singh’s death, Congress party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra tweeted, “Shubham Mani Tripathi was killed on June 19, Vikram Joshi was killed on July 20, Ratan Singh was killed on August 24. Three journalists were killed in three months. FIRs have been filed against 11 journalists. The attitude of the UP government towards the safety and freedom of journalists is unfortunate.”
55 Thus Far
But it is not just in Uttar Pradesh. At least 55 journalists have been arrested, booked, assaulted and threatened for their reportage across the country, according to a report by an independent think-tank called Rights And Risks Analysis Group.
- 6 journalists were booked in the conflict zone of Jammu and Kashmir;
- 5 journalists were booked in Himachal Pradesh state;
- 4 journalists each were arrested, assaulted or threatened in the states of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Maharashtra;
- 2 journalists each were arrested, assaulted and threatened in the states of Punjab, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.
- In Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Nagaland and Telangana, one journalist each was attacked so far.
This is just in 2020.
Ashwani Saini is a freelance journalist in Sundernagar area in Himachal Pradesh state’s Mandi district. As of August, seven formal police complaints had been registered against him under Sections 451, 504, 506, 269 and 188 of IPC and Section 54 of Disaster Management Act, among others, he told me.
On April 7, weeks after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, Saini and another journalist, Jasveer Thakur, did a Facebook live from a village called Bhurjwanu in Sundernagar.
He reported that about a hundred slum dwellers had not received any ration in more than 10 days. The next day, the Sub Divisional Magistrate registered a formal complaint against both of them for reporting “fake news.”
Undeterred, Saini published another report, this time on the illegal operation of a brick kiln during the lockdown. Hundreds of workers were put to work, violating the conditions of the countrywide lockdown. The result? Another complaint was filed against him.
“As of now, there are seven FIRs (first information reports) filed against me. The local authorities are using the Disaster Management Act to curb the freedom of the press,” he said.
Saini wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur. But he said, “There is no point in writing to them. The prime minister kicks it down to the chief minister who in turn kicks it down to the Director General of Police and then it comes down to the Sundernagar police. Will the police investigate themselves?” he asked.
When I reached out to local Sub-Divisional Magistrate Rahul Singh for comments, he refused to entertain any queries.
Media vs Government of India
In the latest press freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders, an international media freedom watchdog, India’s ranking has slipped from 140 to 142 (out of 180 nations). The drop was attributed to “pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line,” according to a report in The Print.
And that is no surprise.
Consider this. On Aug. 11, three journalists, including a female reporter from The Caravan magazine, were beaten, subjected to slurs, threatened with death and even sexually harassed in northeast Delhi while reporting the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi communal violence. The crowd became more aggressive when they found out that one of them was a Muslim. The International Federation of Journalists has alleged that the attackers are affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Not just this, a senior journalist from Scroll.in, Supriya Sharma, was also booked for a report from the constituency of Narendra Modi, Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh.
It’s Not Just About the Reporting
It’s not just their reports in mainstream media but their social media posts that have made many journalists the target of unruly mobs.
On April 20, Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zehra was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for some old social media posts that were, according to Newslaundry, deemed “anti-national” and motivated by “criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offence against public tranquillity.”
Prashant Kanojia, a Delhi-based journalist, was arrested twice by the Uttar Pradesh police for his social media posts in 2019 and again in 2020. Kanojia was in jail at the time of the publishing of this report, as confirmed by his wife, Jagisha Arora.
Journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was booked for purportedly “disseminating fake news” in April.
On June 19, the Uttar Pradesh police in Unnao booked Dixit for a tweet about women inmates alleging misbehaviour by male prisoners because there were no lady police officers around in the Unnao jail. A complaint was registered against him at the Kotwali police station the following day.
“My report was factual,” said Dixit. “A day after this report, female officers were appointed in the jail. I have a recorded conversation as proof to substantiate it. I have also posted it on Twitter.”
Dixit added, “It is very difficult to be a journalist in Unnao. These FIRs are nothing new. The sections that they have booked me under will not stand the judicial scrutiny. These are tactics to intimidate journalists.”
Tripathi is not the first journalist to be booked in Unnao.
“Before me, three journalists had been arrested in Unnao. Ashu Awasthi, who worked with FM News, was released after a year and a half in jail. He was arrested days after reporting a case of police brutality against a child. Ram Khilawan from HNN 24X7 spent around three months in jail while Satish Kumar, the editor of a Lucknow-based newspaper called Public Pressure, is still under arrest. He did a lot of interesting stories with strong headlines. These were widely read news outlets,” Dixit recalled.
Quick to Act on Journalists, not Their Reports
Police are quick to act against journalists but do no such thing about the issues they highlight. Dixit told me that days before the death of Shubham, he had approached the Uttar Pradesh police seeking protection. He also told them that his life was in danger but nothing was done about it.
On the other hand, the police went all the way to Delhi from Lucknow to arrest Kanojia within hours of filing the complaint, his wife said.
Dixit said, “Most of the journalists are booked under unrelated sections related to the Scheduled Tribes/Scheduled Castes Act, intimidation, extortion or attempt to murder. It’s because most of these sections are cognizable and non-bailable offences.”
Jagisha Arora, the wife of Kanojia, said he, too, was booked under unrelated sections. “I was shocked and scared to see over six sections in the FIR. Later, our lawyer told me that most of these won’t stand in court.”
No Data, No Evidence
Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar have studied the attacks and killings on journalists between 2014 and 2019 for a report by an NGO, Thakur Foundation, which seeks to protect civil rights for citizenship empowerment. They say there is no official record on the subject.
“In 2014, the government announced that the National Crime Records Bureau would collate data separately but a satisfactory format has still not been devised,” said the report.
Hansraj Ahir, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs at the time, said that a total of 204 cases were registered and 140 persons were arrested for attacks on media persons between 2014 and 2017. There were 198 such instances from 2014 to 2019, and 63 of those were targeted attacks because of the journalists’ investigative work. The official was responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament.
In their report, Seshu and Sarkar stated that since 2010, there have been over 30 cases of journalists being killed due to their work but there have been only three convictions. “The struggle to secure justice is often lonely,” it said.
On May 13, 2016, Rajdeo Ranjan, the bureau chief of the Hindi daily Hindustan was shot dead in Bihar state’s Siwan district. After the dogged persistence of his wife Asha Ranjan, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took up the case. Mohammad Shahabuddin, a gangster-turned-parliamentarian, was named as an accused.
In October 2019, Ranjan found that the CBI counsel had stopped attending the court and the hearings kept getting postponed. In November, she learned from a police officer that sometime in October, CBI cases were being heard by the special crime branch of the states.
According to Seshu and Sarkar, a day after yet another postponement, she said “Abhi mujhe lag raha hai ki maine jahaan se shuru kiya, wahi wapas aa gayi hun (I feel like I’m back to square one).”
How the Families Suffer
Dhamo Dharan, a cameraman with 23 years of experience with Sun News, was arrested from Tamil Nadu’s Minjur town after he caught the staff at a primary health centre handing out medicines to patients without a prescription on camera. He spent 10 days in the police station and claimed to be assaulted physically in custody. As soon as he got bail, he was terminated by Sun News.
He told this reporter on a telephonic interview, “I pleaded with them. I had already suffered a lot. I was heckled and abused. I had already spent time in jail. But my children are very young. How will I manage during the pandemic? They told me that there is a clause that prohibits them from employing someone who has gone to jail.”
On May 1, Manish Pande, a journalist with a Lucknow-based television channel called News1, was interrogated by the Uttar Pradesh police’s special task force after his report on the poor quality of PPE kits supplied to a medical college was published.
“Case did not go any further but News1 terminated me,” he said.
“Shubham (Tripathi) got married just months before his assassination in Unnao. I’m about to get married soon and I’m afraid for my family, too. In this atmosphere of fear, it’s only my passion that is driving me and my family now understands that. I have been reporting for eight years now,” said Dixit.
But he said sometimes it’s not enough.
“Sometimes I feel my hands are tied. A few days ago an underage girl approached me for help. She alleged that she was gang-raped by a few men in Unnao and the police were not registering the case. I could not get any official comment from the police for a story on it because they don’t care much for reporters. I can’t do anything without an official comment. I urged her to approach the court which was her only option. Till date, her case has not been registered,” he said.
No One to Back Them Up
A professor of journalism based in New Delhi, requesting anonymity, said, “In most of the cases, there is no strong journalists’ association to support them. The Editors’ Guild of India is limited to Delhi-based media. In my long career, I have hardly seen the Guild taking a stand for anyone beyond the capital’s popular journalists.”
I tried to find a statement by the Guild on the death of Tripathi but there was none.
The Press Council of India (PCI), a self-regulatory watchdog of the press, intervened in five cases this year.
They are probing the FIRs against Republic TV, editors of Media Break newspaper, the online threat to the editor of Arunachal Times, the questioning of a special correspondent of The Indian Express by the Delhi police and an attack on The Caravan journalists, according to a report by an NGO, Rights and Risks Analysis Group, which conducts risks analysis to prevent violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The report concluded that these interventions of the PCI are “inadequate and the media remains at a serious risk in India.”