According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 30 journalists have been murdered for their work in the last two decades in India. Dharmendra Singh, a reporter for India’s national newspaper Dainik Bhaskar, is the latest victim. On November 12th, Singh was shot near his home in the East Indian state of Bihar; he died on the way to the hospital. Singh was a crime reporter, known for his articles about the connection between police officials and the stone-cutting mafia of the Sasaram district. It is believed that a convicted prisoner, who blamed Singh’s reporting for his arrest, was responsible for the attack. Although the Bihar police chief promised a complete investigation into the murder, it is unlikely that Singh’s attacker will be brought to justice, given India’s poor record for achieving justice in cases involving violence against journalists. While India is on the governing council of the Community of Democracies, a body dedicated to upholding and strengthening democracy globally, it falls short in protecting the rights and safety of its own media.
The role of a free press is to enable citizens to openly exchange information and ideas, in order to promote democratic governance and societal development. India, as the world’s largest democracy, appears to recognize the integral role that journalists play in acting as a check on the power of the state. Freedom of speech is guaranteed as a constitutional right, and the safety of journalists in foreign conflict zones is promoted through basic training. At the same time, India has routinely struggled to ensure its journalists’ safety when reporting on domestic affairs. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an NGO dedicated to globally promoting press freedom, created an Impunity Index that spotlights countries where journalists are murdered, without the perpetrators facing prosecution. For the eighth year in a row, India appeared on this index, with 13 unsolved murders in the last decade. In fact, India has more unsolved murders in the past decade than any other country in the world.
One could argue that the failure to prosecute perpetrators of crimes against journalists is due to India’s overburdened judicial system; however, the fact that India’s government failed to provide any updated information on investigations into these crimes for the UN Director General’s most recent biannual impunity report implies that the government is complicit in this cycle of impunity. This cycle of inaction only exacerbates violence, as potential perpetrators become confident that they will not be punished. If perpetrators know that they will not be held accountable for crimes, journalists, especially those who cover sensitive topics such as political corruption and human rights violations, remain easy targets.
A culture of impunity exists in India because the country lacks the political will to fully promote the rights and safety of journalists. This creates a troubling environment for local journalists, who are more vulnerable to attack since they cover beats such as politics and corruption. Furthermore, journalists who report on corruption are often harassed because of India’s defamation law. The law, created in the 19th century, stipulates a two-year jail term if a person is found guilty of defamation through text or speech; criminal defamation cases are often filed against journalists whose reports cast politicians or powerful individuals in an unfavorable light. Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu, faced three criminal defamation cases during his time as editor because of pieces that criticized the former chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu.
In some cases, impunity, threat, and harassment can cause journalists to self-censor due to the desire to remain safe. Often, before defamation cases are filed, lawyers send newspapers an advance warning. These legal threats often cause editors to avoid pursuing stories. In 2015, Joey Joseph, who worked for the Times of India, was served a legal notice stating that if he did not withdraw reports that alleged discrepancies in the accounts of one of India’s biggest industrial warehouses, he and his employer would have to pay US$748 million in damages. The Times immediately ceased coverage. The financial and physical threats to journalists cause self-censorship, meaning that issues that are controversial or critical of the government remain unreported. This in turn inhibits democracy and governmental transparency.
Fortunately, India is working to increase its freedom and transparency. The Press Council of India holds trainings and workshops for both local journalists and those going into conflict zones in order to ensure that Indian journalists have the information and tools necessary to remain safe. Additionally, India has partnered with other countries and regional organizations in the global effort to protect the rights and safety of journalists in various ways, including the celebration of World Press Freedom Day (held every May 3rd), and the commitment to UNESCO’s partnership with the Center for Freedom of Media for the purpose of researching and educating journalists on their safety.
Other support for journalists includes extensive training and advisory services from different NGOs such as Global Journalist Security and Reporters Without Borders. Global Journalist Security is a technology-oriented training and safety firm that not only trains journalists for dangerous conditions in the field – with tools such as battlefield awareness, weapons identification, and roadblock scenarios – but also for emotional trauma awareness and self-care in the case of sexual assault or other injury. Reporters Without Borders works on the ground, including in India, to exclusively promote press freedom. While crimes against journalists, including harassment, murder, sexual assault, intimidation, and impunity still exist, the international community is taking steps to combat this problem. The United Nations has worked extensively on creating plans of action for the safety of journalists, and recently passed Security Council Resolution 2222, which calls for states to take greater steps to protect journalists in environments of armed conflict and ensure accountability for crimes against them. It is important that these research, educational, and safety networks continue to evolve to promote the rights of journalists, as a free press promotes more than just the universal right to the freedom of speech. A free press guarantees each individual’s right to the freedom of information, leading to a more informed and democratic world. For this reason, the rights of journalists must not be overlooked.