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Print edition : Jul 15, 2011 T+T-
Mediapersons protest against the murder of Dey, in Mumbai on June 13.-SANTHOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

Mediapersons protest against the murder of Dey, in Mumbai on June 13.-SANTHOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

The killing of the journalist Jyotirmoy Dey in Mumbai brings into focus the increasing number of attacks on mediapersons.

THE headline has become all too familiar: Unidentified assailants attack journalist. And the follow-up to the news Investigations on, but police fail to find assailants is equally familiar and depressing.

In the past six months, three journalists from across the country have lost their lives in the line of duty. None of them was in a situation of strife such as a war or a riot. They were reporting on day-to-day issues such as sand mining, oil pilferage and adulteration, environmental crimes, political chauvinism, caste-related issues, and so on. They were specifically targeted for the stories they wrote or the beat they covered.

In December last year, Sushil Pathak, a reporter with Dainik Bhaskar in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, was shot dead while returning home from a night shift. The case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after unrelenting protests by journalists' organisations.

In January this year, Umesh Rajput, a reporter with Nai Duniya, was shot dead by two masked men on motorbikes. A clue to his murder was a note that threatened him with death if he did not stop his investigations.

On June 11, Jyotirmoy Dey, Special Investigations Editor at the tabloid Mid Day, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle in the Mumbai suburb of Powai.

Angered at this trend of shooting the messenger and the sloth of the authorities in taking action against the killers of Dey, journalists across the country came together to stage rallies, protests, hunger strikes and meetings with the authorities. On June 21, editors of national and regional newspapers and television channels met Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik to demand a status report on the investigation, ask for the case to be transferred to the CBI, and to deal with the larger issue of threats to journalists. Members of the delegation included Shekhar Gupta of Indian Express, N. Ram of The Hindu, Arnab Goswami of Times Now and Nikhil Wagle of IBN Lokmat. State Home Minister R.R. Patil did not attend the meeting. The Chief Minister did not concede much though he appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee to frame guidelines for journalists and modify the draft law called the Maharashtra Journalists (Prevention of Violence and Damage to Property) Ordinance, 2010.

The first attempts to protect journalists were made a couple of years ago after an attack on the home of Kumar Ketkar, Editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta. A committee called the Patrakar Halla Virodhi Samiti (committee against attacks on journalists) was then appointed by the State government.

Last year several media and media-related organisations came together to form the Committee Against Attacks on Journalists (CAAJ). The CAAJ's main demand is to press the government for a protective piece of legislation. In 2009, the State had proposed a special Bill making attacks against doctors and journalists a non-bailable offence. But journalists were excluded from the final Bill. Following protests by journalists, a redrafting was promised, in which two features were to be incorporated: violent attacks on the person of journalists or on their workplaces would be a non-bailable offence and their perpetrators would be liable to pay heavy fines for loss of professional equipment. In September last year, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan called a meeting of legislative party leaders to elicit their opinions on the matter. Shockingly, all of them, with the exception of Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, were against it. Even more appalling was the revelation that Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar actively lobbied against the proposed legislation.

The Press Club of Mumbai and the Marathi Patrakar Parishad moved an intervention application along with two criminal public interest litigation (PIL) petitions pleading for the transfer of the J. Dey case to the CBI. The petitions were heard by a two-judge Bench on June 11. The Mumbai Police argued that they had made considerable investigations into the case. In fact, Arup Patnaik told the delegation of editors that he was confident of solving the case because the Mumbai Police had never failed to solve a case involving the underworld. The court granted the Mumbai Police's plea and gave it 15 more days to produce substantial evidence.

There is as yet no evidence of the motive or identity of the perpetrators of the crime. Speculation is rife and hinges on the various stories that the crime reporter was working on. Given his beat, any story could have been the reason for his killing, including a supposedly negative report on a Mumbai Police officer that Dey had submitted to the Home Minister. This is one of the reasons why the PIL petitions ask for the case to be handed over to the CBI.

While condemning the murder, Nikhil Wagle said that there was a larger issue at hand the nexus between the underworld, the mafia, the police and the political support that allowed all these to thrive. J. Dey may have been killed by the oil mafia but some politician is protecting the oil mafia, he said. Wagle said Maharashtra had the worst record among the larger States of the country as far as the safety of journalists was concerned. From 1991 to the present, there have been 879 attacks on journalists, mainly in the rural areas. There has been no progress in the investigations into these cases; in many of them, there has been no investigation at all, he said.

Orissa seems to have a long history of attacks against journalists, and now Maharashtra is coming a close second. In the past two years, there have been 185 attacks on mediapersons in Maharashtra. In July 2010, a journalist in Ambejogai, Beed, had both his legs broken for reporting on bootleggers. In mid-July, Shiv Sainiks vandalised the Zee 24 Taas television office in Kolhapur and assaulted the staff. In August the same year, a Times of India journalist on an assignment in the Konkan was attacked by illegal sand miners. The same month, a Zee 24 Taas reporter was beaten up by a gang at Dadar while working on a story.

This year too, journalists have faced numerous attacks and threats. In January, Sudhir Dhawale, Dalit activist and editor of Vidrohi, a Marathi publication, was arrested and charged with sedition and for harbouring Maoist links. In Orissa, a journalist with the Sambad newspaper sustained a head injury and fractures in an attack by supporters of a Biju Janata Dal leader. Again in Orissa, in January, reporters of two different television channels were manhandled by BJD supporters and, in another instance, journalists were roughed up by Indian Oil Corporation security staff while covering a protest rally.

In February, at a public rally in Nanded, Maharashtra, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said the media should be stifled and journalists thrashed. After protests by journalists, an apology of sorts was tendered on his behalf by his uncle Sharad Pawar. In the same month, a crew of the television channel NDTV was detained and harassed in Mundra, Gujarat, by the Adani port authorities for filming the destruction of mangroves.

In April, the publisher of the Oriya daily Suryaprava was intimidated by the police for a series of articles he had published. Last September, he had been arrested by the police.

In May, reporter Tarakant Dwivedi, better known by his pen name Akela, was arrested in Mumbai by the Government Railway Police under the Official Secrets Act for an article he wrote in Mumbai Mirror on arms and ammunition procured after the 26/11 attacks lying exposed to the elements and rusting away. In Goa, a reporter of Goan Observer was beaten up and illegally detained by the security agency of a mining company. In the same month in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, a gang with apparent connections to a local Congress leader attacked the offices of several media organisations protesting against what it said were negative reports about him. Again, in May, a reporter of Mathrubhumi in Kollam, Kerala, was battered with iron rods.

Journalists themselves are now taking a more systematic approach. Documentation reveals that reporters are considered easy targets a one-stop killing solution to stop illegalities from being made public and to deter other reporters from investigative work. An online report titled Free Speech Issues in India 2010: Selections from the Free Speech Hub on TheHoot.org provides extensive documentation on attacks on scholars, artists, film-makers and others all over the country. Summing up the situation, an editorial in the report says: The attacks on journalists are inextricably linked to the changing equation between the state and civil society, brought about by the triumvirate of aggressive industrialisation, political interests and competitive media houses. The State government's failure to take swift and punitive action in these cases has sent a clear message: the messenger can be shot.