Confronting impunity

BY Hoot editorial| IN Media Freedom | 13/06/2011
In a country where there is now more soft journalism than hard, J Dey, editor investigations of Mid-Day, has paid the price for risking taking on dangerous people.
Journalists need solidarity to confront impunity. A HOOT editorial.
Impunity is a term one associates with countries less governed by the rule of law. It means the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. There are countries in the world where impunity threatens the journalist’s freedom to function—India never used to be one of them. That it is no longer a rare occurrence should worry both the profession and the people, since the latter need the media to keep the  country functioning freely and fairly. When watchdogs stop doing their job out of fear of reprisal who will keep the government, the political and the business class honest? And who will suffer if they don’t? The citizenry will.
In a country where there is now more soft journalism than hard,  J Dey, editor investigations of Mid-Day, has paid the price for risking taking on dangerous people. Some reports suggest the danger to him came from the oil mafia he was exposing, other reports say he was seeking to further expose a senior police officer who had already filed a defamation case against him.
The subcontinent has seen impunity become increasingly common in Pakistan, Sri Lanka,  Bangladesh and Nepal.   In the last couple of years India has joined these countries. Attacks on journalists here were becoming of a significant enough number to lead this website to begin tracking them last year. And the numbers that emerged from the tracking suggest that attacks, registration of cases of sedition, even killings,  are growing in number and that journalists have now become fair game in our land. Twenty seven attacks last year, one killing, 9 arrests or detention.
 When security personnel attack them at controversial project sites, when motorcycle borne assailants come and shoot to kill, when politicians let hired goons loose on reporters, it suggests that they have lost the protection the profession takes for granted in civilized countries boasting of a free press. Why is that the case, we need to ask ourselves. Is it only because in India now there is more lawlessness in general? Or is it because members of the profession are seen as pesky and no longer feared and respected? Or because those who perpetrate crimes against them have co-opted  the law enforcement machinery which can be counted upon to blink at the attack?
Also, In Chattisgarh and in Orissa, there are journalists and publications which oblige vested interests which include arms of the state. The more they do that, the more they render their more honest colleagues in the profession vulnerable. When some of the media is up for sale, the rest becomes easy to suppress.
Reports from Manipur on how vulnerable journalists have become there finally led to a fact-finding mission comprising editors and others going there in 2009. Unfortunately that was initiated by local journalists and human rights groups who asked people from Delhi to come and investigate. On their own all that media bodies like the Editors Guild, press clubs, journalists unions and the South Asia Media Commission ever do is issue statements. Do they follow up? Do they hold the government to account again and again on unsolved cases? Do they send a fact finding team every time something happens? Do they keep up the pressure through publications and news channels? Has any  group of media personnel gone to Chhattisgarh with the express purpose of investigating the conditions in which journalists function there? They have not.
Take Kashmir. Through the 2010 turmoil local journalists suffered from denial of free movement, while journalists from the so-called national media were escorted from Delhi and given access to move around a curfew bound Srinagar. If some journalists are privileged and others are vulnerable,  and the former acquiesce to this there will be no solidarity. If there is no solidarity there will be no unity. If there is no unity the profession will remain vulnerable.
We need to look across the border to Pakistan and see what’s happening there. The profession is viciously under attack, but they are united. We’ve issued statements from here. But we need to be in touch with professional colleagues there and track how they go about securing their own protection. Last year in Bhutan when the South Asia Media Commission of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA)   met,  Sri Lankan journalists, under attack in their own country, asked if their Indian counterparts would pressure their foreign office to raise the issue of impunity with the Sri Lankan government. Since the latter was engaged with the Indian government  on many issues. The Indian journalists present demurred.
That question suggests that something is needed which is not happening now. A strategy through which a powerful profession with a voice can build solidarity with other journalists in the region and within the country. The solidarity needed to confront impunity.
The prime minister, Sonia Gandhi, and the Maharashtra chief minister, have all made the right noises following the killing of J Dey. For that noise to amount to something more, follow up pressure is needed. Two journalists were shot dead in Chattisgarh in December and in January. One belonged to Dainik Bhaskar, another to Nai Duniya. After their killings noises made by the highest quarters were not heard, and not surprisingly their murders remain unsolved.
When a journalist in Mumbai or Delhi is targeted for killing or arrest, it at least gets big play. Given the latest mode of protest that seems to draw a response from the government, a relay hunger strike is being planned by groups of journalists in Mumbai if no results are produced by the investigation over next two days. So  we have to wait and see whether this one is solved,  unlike the killings of the two journalists mentioned above, or that of  Parag Das in Guwahati  in 1996, or of many others who were mysteriously killed in between.
And whether it is or isn’t, the profession needs to fight growing impunity, long term.
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