Harassment, abuse and death: Why India is one of the most dangerous places to report the news.

This is what it's like to do the job in India.

By Ruchi Kumar
Splice India
New Delhi, India, September 7, 2017 - A protest against the killing of Gauri Lankesh, a senior journalist, in Bangalore, India. Photo: Shutterstock
New Delhi, India, September 7, 2017 - A protest against the killing of Gauri Lankesh, a senior journalist, in Bangalore, India. Photo: Shutterstock

Two months ago, India jolted by the shooting death of 55-year-old Gauri Lankesh, a left-leaning journalist in Bangalore. Lankesh, who was known for her strong criticism of Hindu nationalist politics, was gunned down outside her home on September 5.

As with many cases of violence toward journalists in the country, there were suggestions that the political and legal establishment had some level of involvement or failed to properly investigate the murder, displaying an institutionalised apathy toward protecting freedom of speech.

A strident opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lankesh was mourned across the country and her death sparked protests in major cities.

India is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. Since 1992, 41 journalists have been killed with motive confirmed, according to media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists. It says 27 others were killed with motive unconfirmed.

Even as cases of journalists being killed for their work find space in mainstream media reports, concerns have been present for Indian scribes for a long time.

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists (https://cpj.org/killed/asia/india) Illustration: Rishad Patel
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists (https://cpj.org/killed/asia/india) Illustration: Rishad Patel

Ongoing concern

In his 22 years in journalism, Yogesh Pawar can recall many instances when he was abused, physically assaulted, and even came close to death in 2001 as a result of his reporting on the powerful and well-connected.

“I had gone to report on a communal flare-up in a district in Maharashtra along with a photojournalist but the police denied us any access to victim’s family,” the 48-year-old tells Splice.

Not one to give up easily, Pawar and his colleague found a way to visit the family by taking a different route.

“We had been talking to the family for about 45 minutes before the police got wind of us [being] there,” he recalls.

“We were beaten and forcefully pushed into a police jeep, taken to the outskirts of a sugarcane field, where we [were] hit some more. The inspector pulled out his gun threatening to shoot us, asking us what we had heard and what we were going to write,” Pawar says.

“We were eventually locked up in a dank cell. It had a pool of urine in a corner and nowhere to sit except the floor.”

Pawar and his colleague eventually got out by reaching out to higher authorities in Mumbai using a cellphone they happened to have with them—an unusual device to be carrying in 2001. “While leaving, the same cop said to us that he was ‘only doing his duty’ and we should have no hard feelings for him.”

Seventeen years later, Pawar says the way journalists are treated has changed little. Indeed, just two weeks after the murder of Lankesh, another journalist, 27-year-old Santanu Bhowmick, was killed while covering political unrest in northeastern state of Tripura. He was allegedly abducted and murdered by members of a powerful political outfit, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), that has close ties with the right-wing central government of BJP.

“Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” noted a Reporters Without Borders report earlier this year.

“Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment,” it read. However, at the time of writing, no journalist had been convicted of sedition.

‘Presstitutes’ slur

Women reporting in India face an additional layer of threats, which can extend to sexual harassment and rape.

Priyanka Borpujari, a freelance journalist who often travels to remote parts of India on assignments, was targeted while reporting from Datewada in Chhattisgarh, a district rife with internal conflict, in 2010.

“At first I found that my blog had been shut down, and later the electricity at the place I was staying at was cut off,” says Borpujari. “Later that day, the police came and tried to intimidate me; they snatched my camera from my hands that contained important testimonials of the indigenous people I had met,” she recalls.

Borpujari was told to leave immediately but says couldn’t afford to do so until she had ensured the safety of her local sources.

While Borpujari’s encounter with the security threats occurred in a remote part of India, she points out that the intimidation of women journalists can and has happened in urban environments, which are often perceived as being safer.

She points to an incident in August, when journalist Ilma Hasan was heckled by a group of men at Aligarh Muslim University, in Uttar Pradesh, who surrounded her and a video journalist colleague to prevent them from filming a segment on ‘instant divorce’.

Amrita Madhukalya, 31, who mostly reports from the nation’s capital of Delhi, agrees with Borpujari. “There’s this shrinking space for dissenting voices, and if journalists are questioning a particular party of a particular government, slurs are a given,” she says, referring to a common phrase, presstitutesa portmanteau of the words press and prostituteoften used against journalists.

Meanwhile, the online space has empowered marginalised voices, but also provided a new platform for harassment. “I was once viciously attacked on Facebook by a key BJP functionary in Northeast India consistently for many days and [she] used language I cannot reproduce here,” Madhukalya says of one incident. She responded by publishing screenshots of their conversations on Twitter, and tagging BJP Manipur and India handles. “The harassment stopped when I outed her.”

Dangers of reporting in India

Here's a list of writers and reporters killed in recent years, compiled by the Hindustan Times.


Anonymous online threats

It’s much harder when threats are delivered anonymously, a cloak for abuse that is easily offered by the digital space. “After this one particular story I wrote went viral, I received a lot of hate mail, death threats and this one person even sent me a picture of my apartment, explaining that if I don’t take the story down, they know where I live,” says Andre Borges, 28, a writer at BuzzFeed India.

With few avenues to help deal with physical threats, and even fewer to report online harassment, journalists in India are learning to cope with violence and intimidation as they go. “In most cases, I figure it will blow over, so I don’t really do anything. Although after receiving the picture, I mentioned it to my family and close friends just in case,” Borges says.

Madhukalya also keeps her family and colleagues in the loop as part of her safety measures. “If I’m travelling outside Delhi, I am in touch with colleagues and family frequently. I also get in touch with local police officers, local politicians and political parties’ workers when covering elections,” she says.

Yet within India’s media industry there is scant information or resources regarding journalist safety and security. And as a result, few take precautions. “I try to gauge the danger to my best to ensure safety of equipment, but that’s all. Given the Indian situation, I would not be able to report on any hard news if I take precautions,” says Pawar.

When it seems as if a situation is becoming too tricky, Pawar sends out a silent prayer for his family. As threats against their freedom of speech continue to mountand with little access to recourseprayers are perhaps all that’s left.

Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist based in Kabul working on post-conflict and development stories from the region. Follow Ruchi Kumar on Twitter.

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