No protest marches for Jagendra Singh –

17 Jun

His horrific death confirms the growing fear that politicians are targeting the local journalists who know what they are up to. What are we doing about it? asks NUPUR BASU.

“It is ironic that, while corruption among the system’s managers and subalterns is at times brilliantly exposed by a small group of exceptional journalists, the wider corruption is unseen and unreported”.
John Pilger

Last week, a red line was crossed in India. Jagendra Singh, a journalist in Uttar Pradesh who ran a Facebook page – Sahjahanpur Samachar – was burnt alive in front of his young son, allegedly by the police at the behest of ruling Samajwadi Party Minister, Ram Murti Varma. The cold blooded killing of Singh, for a series of exposes on the minister, the last of which was the alleged rape of an anganwadi worker, marked a black day for the Indian media.

Singh represented a growing tribe of journalists across small town India who practise their journalism on social media and very effectively at that. He was one of the small group of exceptional journalists Piger talks about above. His page had 5000 followers, local journalists picked up leads from it, but if they had picked up some of the more deadly leads he wouldn’t have stood out as a threat to those in power.

The Hindu reports  that Verma was targeted by Singh for allegations of land encroachment, illegal mining and cases of alleged corruption. He had also alleged that the Minister was behind the illegal sand mining business in the Garga river, which he claimed was being deliberately ignored by the officials. Before the attack which killed him there had been an earlier attack in which Jagendra Singh’s leg was broken. Apparently he asked for protection, the police responded by registering cases of attempt to murder and looting against him.

According to the Hindu account, he announced on his Facebook page on May 22 that he might be killed by the Minister. He was torched on June 1. And just a day before he had questioned the huge landholdings Ram Murti Verma in a post.

Jagendra Singh died in hospital but not before his dying statement had been recorded on video. He names the perpetrators and, writhing in pain, poses a question: “Why couldn’t they just have beaten me up. Why did they have to pour petrol over me and set fire to me?”

As the media absorbed this news, there were reports of a television journalist, Haider Khan, from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, being trapped, held at gunpoint, assaulted and dragged by motor cycle riding goons till he fell unconscious. He had been reporting on a family feud involving usurpation of land and the guilty chose to resort to direct action. Pesky journalists who probe injustice in the mofussil areas have become easy game for those who flout the law.

Uttar Pradesh ruled by the Samajwadi party has been particularly bad. Five journalists were killed here in 2013.  In Bulandshahr, Etawah, Lakhimpur Kheri, Banda, and Muzzafarnagar.

In Jagendra Singh’s case although his murder as attracted widespread condemnation, there has been no action against the accused minister who, ironically, has been entrusted with the welfare of the backward classes.

But Singh’s family is at this point being subjected alternately to harrassment, threats and inducements.

The New York-based organisation that audits attacks on journalists worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has already flagged both gruesome attacks internationally. Singh features right on top of the CPJ home page. A man, who was bravely challenging criminal elements in his society till last month, is now a statistic on the CPJ website.  India’s shame is being well publicised abroad.

What have we done about Singh’s murder?

I and many other journalists are seriously troubled by the fact that one of our tribe has been burnt alive and we have failed to bring those responsible to account. Not a single minister, leave alone the Information Minister, has found time to condemn the attack.

If we are to go beyond a couple of television debates, surely we have to show our solidarity nationwide? We, who spend our lives covering rallies, cannot organise ourselves to rally and demonstrate in front of Raj Bhavans, state legislatures and Parliament? Can we not impose a national boycott of press conferences held by politicians and the police, till those who killed Singh have been arrested? Can we not run blank screens on TV as NDTV did when the documentary film “India’s Daughter’ was banned?

In 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi sought to introduce the infamous Defamation Bill to curb the power of the press post-Bofors, journalists across the country rallied, wearing black badges to protest. There was none of the clout of the private television industry then, nor any social media but the print media alone put up a robust protest and finally Rajiv Gandhi had to abandon the Bill.

What, then, paralyses us today? Has corporatisation made us incapable of dropping our petty media house rivalries to come together as a community?

Speaking at a conference on the media in Delhi some time back, journalist Seema Mustafa had commented that the era of globalisation had ended the trade unions in the newspaper industry. “This has greatly affected the solidarity of journalists as a tribe” she said.

Television channels never had unions to begin with. The few journalists’ organisations that remain are often accused of being mere pressure groups to lobby for subsidised land or housing for journalists.

Bullies that they are, local politicians and criminals always attack district journalists who they know lack the ‘reach’ and protection of those in the national media. Singh and Khan are not the first journalists to be killed. Several others have been eliminated in bold daytime attacks, some just outside their newsrooms both in Uttar Pradesh and in other states too.

They have been killed for exposing illegal mining, timber felling, corruption in welfare schemes, and land grabbing. Through this terror, politicians and criminals think they will silence other journalists and stringers who have their ear to the ground and whose news is often the primary source of information for news organisations.

It is not only about killings. The Free Speech Tracker on the Hoot, recorded three attacks this year before the one on the journalist in Pilibit, all in the North East.

On 31 January there was an alleged assault and attempt to murder on a woman reporter of a Guwahati-based television news channel in Latasil Police station where she had gone to collect news. The following month in Imphal the Assam Rifles attacked TV reporters recording an attack on Manipur Police personnel by miscreants at the border town of Moreh on February 2. They were told by Assam Rifles personnel to stop reporting the incident and attacked and beaten when they did not. And in May a reporter from Agradoot was covering a police raid on a godown and ended up being being atacked by the godown owner. If you don’t want to be investigated, beat up the reporter.

In India we celebrated when Section 66A of the IT Act was struck down by the Supreme Court. We thought this would teach our politicians not to jail college girls for dissenting on Facebook. Instead of learning lessons, they just decided to brutally eliminate the journalists who dare to take on their corruption online.

A deadly profession of late

According to CPJ, 1132 journalists have been killed in the world since 1992. “International journalists were killed at a higher rate in 2014 than in recent years. Syria is the world’s deadliest country for journalists for the third year in a row.”  

But consider this: India ranks in the top 10 countries for the number of journalists killed in the line of duty. It comes a close third in a tie with Pakistan and the Philippines with 10 journalists killed in 2015 (the number has risen as I write), next only to Syria (15) and Iraq (13).

Since 1992, 32 journalists have been killed in India according to the CPJ.  The real story lies in the analyses of the beats the victims were covering.


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