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Journalist Deaths: More Questions than Answers

Were they killed for their work? Were they involved in other, personal interests, which spilled over into their professional lives? Did their professional and personal enemies conspire to kill them?  GEETA SESHU on the poor quality of investigations which have followed these deaths.

Five brutal killings of journalists in India in 28 months and in all but one case, there is little clarity on motives, investigations, progress in the court cases or even a pattern to the deaths. Were the journalists killed for their work? Were the journalists involved in other, personal interests, which spilled over into their professional lives? Did their professional and personal enemies join up and conspire to kill them?

While the answers are difficult to come by, these questions – however uncomfortable – need to be asked. By and large, journalists were known clearly by their identities as journalists and journalists’ organisations have stoutly resisted any attempt by police or other investigating agencies to foist other caps on them – from corruption, personal enmities, even terrorism as we have saw in the Iftikar Geelani case as well as what we are now witnessing in the arrest of Urdu journalist Syed Kazmi    in New Delhi on March 7.

When Sushil Pathak, senior journalist with Dainik Bhaskar was shot dead in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh on December 20, 2010, police initially put out the story that he may be been killed because of some real estate interests. It was only after sustained protests by journalists unions as well as opposition parties that Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh acceded to an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) three months after his death. It is still anybody’s guess as to what evidence can be collected in this lapse of time. Pathak’s wife, Sangeeta, is still clueless about the progress in investigations though she has been questioned twice.

Sadly, little protests followed the killing of Umesh Rajput, a reporter with Nai Duniya outside his residence in Chura village, Chhattisgarh in January 23, 2011. There was no progress in investigations, though there was enough evidence that Rajput’s reportage of medical negligence in eye operations carried out by a local doctor had resulted in threats and he had even filed a First Information Report (FIR) days before being shot dead. His brother Parmeshwar, filed a petition with the Chhattisgarh High Court seeking a report on the investigations.

In the widely reported case of the death of J Dey, Editor (special investigations) with Mid-Day, on June 23, 2011 and the protests that followed, police arrested 11 persons, including journalist Jigna Vora of Asian Age. In this instance, police have honed in on a professional rivalry angle. Other aspects of the slain journalists’s life – including his professional work (his extensive reportage on the oil mafia, on the underworld and even his reports on a corrupt police officer too that resulted in a defamation case being filed against him), did not seem to figure in the investigations leading to his death.  Did they have no bearings at all in Dey’s death?

In the gruesome killing of Chandrika Rai, his wife  and two children in Umaria in Madhya Pradesh on February 18, 2012,  police investigations into his death “proceeded in the wrong direction from day one”, says Bhopal-based journalist Santosh Dwivedi.  At first, there was the theory of the abduction of the son of an administrative officer, now police say that Rai’s driver had killed the journalist and his family and robbed them of cash and valuables. Initially, it was surmised that Rai’s reportage of the coal mining mafia in various newspapers he freelanced for, including Hitavada and Navbharat, had earned him a lot of enemies. But police have not pursued this angle at all, the local journalists said. Dwivedi and other journalists are unwilling to buy the police theory that the driver worked alone and had no accomplices. 

In the latest killing, that of Rajesh Mishra, editor of a small newspaper Media Raj, in Rewa in Madhya Pradesh on March 2, 2012, police promptly arrested four persons including Rajneesh Banerjee, owner of Rewa-based Hindi newspaper Vindhya Bharat, Anil Tripathi, editor of Vindhya Bharat, Arif (photographer) and Ram Ashray, an employee of the newspaper. Ashray had hit Mishra with an iron rod near the office of the Collectorate on March 1 while he was talking to Tripathi, informed the Rewa Superintendent of Police Umesh Joga. Mishra was moved to Jabalpur where he succumbed a day later.

Joga told the Free Speech Hub that Mishra and Banerjee had been involved in a ‘war’ of sorts as they printed articles about one another in their respective newspapers. Mishra had written extensively about irregularities in the schools Banerjee and his family ran and the latter retaliated by killing him. Both newspapers were small weeklies, with a circulation of barely 500 copies each but were both registered publications, he said.

Killings of journalists in the sub-continent

The common thread that runs through these deaths is the poor quality of investigations that follows. This seems to be well entrenched not just in India but across the border too. In Bangladesh, a journalist couple – Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi- were killed on February 11 and here too, there is no progress in investigations. The journalists’ community in Bangladesh have been protesting the deaths and demanding action but to no avail.

In Nepal, journalist Uma Singh was killed in 2009 in Janakpur and initial investigations indicated the involvement of a Maoist leader, Shrawan Yadav. The latter was actively involved in a series of land grabs in the region and had even killed the journalist’s father and brother a couple of years ago. Uma Singh, her friends say, was determined to become a journalist and expose the wrongdoings by the Maoists. She worked hard and wrote a number of articles and also radio broadcasts for Radio Janakpur on land issues, on the condition of women, on sexual harassment etc.

Now, police say that the Maoist ‘angle’ was not the main reason for her death. Instead, they said that a property dispute with a sister-in-law was the reason for her brutal murder. The sister-in-law was arrested, along with another local anti-social element. However, the Maoist leader is out on bail and, when a team from the International Fact-Finding and Advocacy Media Mission to Nepal visited Janakpur last month, they found that the case is yet to proceed and witnesses, including Uma Singh’s mother, have been threatened into silence.

When journalists die, the message they bear dies with them

Why is it so important to establish the causes for the killings of journalists?

Inevitably, when doubts are cast on the reasons for the deaths of these messengers, the anger and sympathy their deaths evoke get dissipated and the protests that may follow these killings are watered down.  With poor or non-existent investigations, impunity rules and the killers of these journalists get away scot free in case after case. Often, suspicions are cast on their very identities as journalists. Their work is then downgraded and forgotten. For their detractors and opponents, their physical elimination is not enough. The erasure of their work is also necessary.

The nature of the beast they feed has changed too.  Media houses are increasingly demanding that journalists play other roles – not merely as procurers of advertising and paid news but also as deal-brokers for all the varied business interests of their media house.  Should journalists pay the price for this with their work and their lives? That’s another question journalists must ask ourselves.

(Courtesy: The Hoot)  


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