Vol. XLIII No. 19 May 12, 2019

World Press Freedom Day on May 3: DUJ Demands Free & Fair Media

IN the 70 years since the national capital’s journalists came together to form a union, the nation’s media and the media community have grown by leaps and bounds. We have seen change, growth, attrition, expansion, retrenchments and closures of media establishments as well as the sprouting of start ups. While the media’s outreach and power has never been as extensive as it is today, the challenges before journalists have never been as stark.

Seven journalists were killed in 2018. Fifty journalists have been killed in India since 1992, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Of these, 35 were targeted for murder and in 32 of these cases, there was complete impunity. The murderers went scot free.

Last year the Human Rights Law Network extensively documented attacks on journalists, including murders and arrests by police on questionable charges in its report titled “Silencing Journalists in India”. The 2018 report documents individual cases over the past decade, the charges against the journalists/perpetrators, the status of the case and other details.

In recent years, India has been slipping in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the French organization, Reporters without Borders. In 2018, it slipped two places and in 2019 it fell another two places, ranking a low 140 out of 180 countries in the 2019 report.  These are dangerous signs in a democracy.

The World Press Freedom Index 2019 points to the ongoing elections as a particularly hazardous time for journalists, including because of hostility from BJP supporters. It says journalists belonging to the non-English media are especially vulnerable. It also speaks of the coordinated hate campaigns launched against journalists in the social media which are particularly vicious when the targets are female journalists. It specially refers to the huge challenges faced by the media in conflict ridden Kashmir.

In a climate of growing intolerance let us remember some of our martyrs. Iconic among them is Gauri Lankesh, editor of the Gouri Lankesh Patrike, the Kannada weekly tabloid in which she published many bold pieces challenging right wing violence, extremism and communalism. We still await justice for Gauri Lankesh, who was shot and killed in Bangalore on September 5, 2017. Her murder led to a national outcry over the safety of journalists but the attacks have not stopped.

Let us remember some of those killed over the past year.

In Arrah on March 25, 2018 Navin Nischal of Dainik Bhaskar and another reporter, Vijay Singh, were run over by an SUV, reportedly driven by the village head, for reporting on child marriage.

On March 26, 2018 the very next day, Sandeep Sharma of News World was killed when a truck ran his motorcycle over. The News World’s bureau chief said that Sharma had received threats for publishing stories on illegal sand mining and police corruption and had been beaten up earlier.

On June 14, 2018 came the shocking murder of Shujaat Bukhari, the popular editor of the Rising Kashmir, along with two police officers assigned to him for protection.

On October 16, 2018, Muhammad Sohail Khan, reporter with K-2 Times newspaper, was killed in Haripur. On October 29, 2018, reporter Chandan Tiwari was murdered in Pathalgadi, Chatra, Jharkhand for reporting corruption in a government housing scheme.

On October 30, 2018, Doordarshan cameraperson Achyut Nanda Sahu became a victim of an ambush by Naxalites in Dantewada who targetted the security forces he was with.

Other kinds of attacks on the freedom of expression come from the indiscriminate use of laws to punish those who speak or write anything that may offend the powerful. In September 2018, there was the case of journalist Abhijit Iyer Mitra whose sarcastic tweets about erotic sculptures at the Sun Temple in Konark led to his unwarranted arrest and incarceration.

Defamation laws are widely used, both by corporate media and politicians, to try to shut up journalists and news organisations that publish stories exposing their corruption and other shenanigans.  Gutsy organisations like the Wire have been slapped by such defamation suits, as have several others. The 100 crore defamation suit filed by Jay Amit Shah is a warning of things to come. Most recently, politician Tejaswi Surya of Bangalore obtained an injunction against 49 media outlets to prevent them from reporting the personal abuse allegations levelled against him by a young woman.  In April 2019, the Karnataka High Court removed the gag order! However, the lower court order was an unpleasant precedent.

Another challenge is the government’s increasing use of internet shutdowns to curb free flow of news, particularly in states like Kashmir.

On World Press Freedom Day, the Delhi Union of Journalists demands an end to violence against all media personnel, an end to both physical attacks and intimidation over social media. We demand that parliament enact a special law to protect journalists from assault, threats, arbitrary arrests and sackings. The law must provide for fast track courts to judge cases and provide redress to journalists and their families. Risk insurance should be made mandatory.

The DUJ also demands an immediate review of the civil and criminal laws of defamation that are being misused to intimidate media persons and media establishments. We recommend that the criminal defamation law be repealed.

DUJ condemns the moves by the union government to repeal the bulk of the labour laws including the Working Journalists Act. We demand amendment of the Act to include all media and provide labour protections to all journalists. We demand the full implementation of the Majithia Wage Award and the announcement of a fresh wage board. We demand an end to the contract system of employment and the attendant exploitation of media workers.

DUJ calls for a reconsideration of the IT laws that permit even local administrations to arbitrarily shut down the internet at the first sign of local conflicts, people’s protests, people’s movements etc. Internet shutdowns stop the free flow of information and prevent journalists from doing their job.

We appeal to Google, Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp to find mechanisms to curb the misuse of social media to threaten media persons, particularly women journalists who face targeted sexist attacks. There is an urgent need for monitoring of social media and its moderation to prevent misuse of platforms. We believe an end to internet-trolling and abuse is possible.

Lastly, we condemn the role of media barons in promoting the growing climate of intolerance and hatred, particularly through partisan TV channels. We realise that much money has flown into their coffers during this election season, impacting their objectivity. In this context, the DUJ demands a White Paper on the status of the entire media industry and an examination of media ownership, cross-media monopolies and other issues that impact the freedom of the press. We call upon all journalists to be objective in their reporting of the elections and related events.   

On World Press Freedom Day 2019 we pledge to face up to all challenges, fight against all attacks on journalists and defend all media freedoms.