GUWAHATI, India, 8 July 2018
As we were preparing to complete the first half of 2018, shocking news broke from America, one of the professed liberal spaces for journalists in a democracy on Earth. A gunman stormed into the newsroom of a Maryland newspaper in USA and killed five media employees including journalists. The 28 June 2018 shooting incident at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, eliminating news-desk personnel Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John Mcnamara, Wendi Winters, and others, only reminded us that journalists across the globe, not only those working in the conflict zones, are facing a dangerous time.
If the grand democracy turns dangerous for scribes, the largest democracy on the globe maintains its status as a hazardous place for journalists. India reported the murder of four journalists in the last six months. Its troubled neighbour Pakistan follows with the casualties of two scribes. Another neighbour Bangladesh reported the murder of one editor-publisher since 1 January, whereas other countries in the Indian subcontinent namely Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives evaded any incident of journo-killing in this period.
India lost three journalists in mysterious accidents within twelve hours in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar on 25 and 26 March 2018. Sandeep Sharma (36), a dedicated reporter of Bhind locality of MP, was deliberately mowed down by a truck in the morning hours, following which the News World reporter succumbed to injuries in the hospital. Sandeep used to contribute media reports against the sand mafia and he received threats.
On the previous night, two scribes, Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh, were hit by a luxury vehicle in the Bhojpur locality of Bihar and died on their way to the hospital. Navin (35), who used to work for Dainik Bhaskar, and Vijay (26), who was associated with a Hindi magazine, were riding on a two-wheeler when the accident took place.
Lately sensation prevailed in the country following the murder of well-known Kashmiri journalist Syed Shujaat Bukhari, who was shot dead in Srinagar on 14 June by a group of militants. The proprietor and chief editor of Rising Kashmir, Shujaat earlier faced similar attacks in 2000 and 2006. The brave and outspoken journalist was since provided with government security. But this time, both of his security guards, Hamid Chaudhary and Mumtaz Awan, also died facing the bullets of hardliner Islamist forces.
Starting his career in the Kashmir Times, Shujaat shifted to The Hindu as its Kashmir correspondent. Later he established Kashmir Media House that publishes the English daily Rising Kashmir, the Urdu daily Buland Kashmir, and the Kashmiri daily Sangarmal. Hailing from Kreeri locality in Baramulla district, Shujaat left behind his parents, wife, and two minor children. He was cremated on the day of Eid after Ramzan’s fasting days in his home place.
Pakistan lost journalist Anjum Muneer Raja, who used to work in the Urdu daily Qaumi Pukaar, to assailants on 1 March. Raja, 40, was shot dead by miscreants in Rawalpindi locality while he was on his way home in the late evening. A second case was reported on 27 March, when Zeeshan Ashraf Butt, a journalist from another Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt, faced the bullets. Butt, 29, was allegedly targeted by a Begowala union council chairperson.
Bangladesh reported the murder of Shahzahan Bachchu on 11 June at Munshiganj locality. Editor of Amader Bikrampur, Bachchu was suspectedly targeted by Islamist forces for his free-thinking comments. Various international rights bodies condemned the murder of Bachchu and urged the authorities for a genuine probe to find the culprits.
According to various international agencies, nearly 50 journalists lost their lives to assailants till date this year, where Afghanistan (casualty 11) tops the list. It is followed by Syria (7), Yemen, Mexico (5 each), India, USA (6), Pakistan, Mexico, Palestine, Philippines, United States of America, Ecuador (2 each), Bangladesh, Indonesia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Slovakia, Syria (1 each) etc.
India is placed at 138 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) 2018 global press freedom index, followed by Pakistan (139), Thailand (140), Cambodia (142), Malaysia (145), Bangladesh (146), Mexico (147), Russia (148), Singapore (151), Turkey (157), Iraq (160), Egypt (161), Iran (164), Laos (170), Cuba (172), China (176), Syria (177) etc.
Norway and Sweden have maintained their first two positions in the RSF press freedom index, where North Korea continues to be at the bottom of the list. Countries which perform better than India include Myanmar (137), Philippines (133), Sri Lanka (131), Qatar (125), Indonesia (124), Maldives (120), Afghanistan (118), Nepal (106), Bhutan (94), Israel (87), Hong Kong (70), Fiji (57), Mauritius (56), South Korea (43), Taiwan (42), United Kingdom (40), Ghana (23), Belgium (7), Switzerland (5), Netherlands (3) etc.
2017 was reported to be the deadliest year for journalists, as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) claimed the casualties as high as 82. India witnessed the murders of Hari Prakash, Brajesh Kumar Singh, Shyam Sharma, Kamlesh Jain, Surender Singh Rana, Gauri Lankesh, Shantanu Bhowmik, KJ Singh, Rajesh Mishra, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, Naveen Gupta and Rajesh Sheoran in the bygone year.
Among those casualties, the Indian northeast’s tiny State of Tripura reported two incidents of journo-murder within a few weeks. Shantanu Bhowmik, a young television reporter was beaten and stabbed to death during a protest demonstration at Mandai locality of western Tripura. Sudip Datta Bhaumik, who used to work for a Bengali newspaper, was shot dead by a Tripura State Rifles constable at RK Nagar locality in the same area.
Both the murders created a sensation in northeast India and the then State chief minister Manik Sarkar received widespread criticism from various quarters. Earlier the Communist chief minister had to digest brickbats following the murder of three media employees (Sujit Bhattacharya, Ranjit Chowdhury and Balaram Ghosh) in Agartala during 2013. Lately, a young reporter (Suman Debnath) faced serious attacks at Dharmanagar locality of Tripura on 18 June, however he survived.
By now, Tripura has a Bhartiya Janata Party-led government and the new chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb, following the saffron party’s poll promises, recently handed over the cases of Shantanu and Sudip to the Central Bureau of Investigation for further probes. Meanwhile, the CBI booked three tribal leaders, Dhirendra Debbarma, Balram Debbarma, and Amit Debbarma, in connection with Santanu’s murder. It may be mentioned that Dhirendra is a legislator nominated by Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, which is an ally of the ruling government in Agartala.
In 2017, Pakistan lost seven journalists: Muhammad Jan, Taimoor Khan, Abdul Razzaque, Bakshish Ellahi, Haroon Khan, Samar Abbas, and Utpal Das, along with a novice scribe (Mashal Khan), to assailants. India’s other neighbours, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the Maldives witnessed the murder of one scribe each last year.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), over 260 scribes were facing imprisonment in 2017 for their works. Turkey, for the successive second year, emerged as the country with the highest number (73) of reporters imprisoned, which has been followed by China (41), Egypt (22), Eritrea (11), Azerbaijan (10), Bahrain (9), Iran & Syria (7), Uzbekistan (6), Saudi Arabia (4) etc. The Indian subcontinent reported the imprisonment of around twenty-five media employees, where Bangladesh leads (10) followed by Myanmar (5). Besides imprisonments, many media persons are being abused and physically assaulted in different countries for their journalistic activities.
While international media rights bodies like RSF, CPJ, and IFJ have raised voices for justice to all slain media persons, the media fraternity in the Indian subcontinent continue pursuing a pragmatic action plan to safeguard the journalists in the line of military, police, and doctors on duty. They have put their arguments loud and clear that if the nations want the scribes to do the risky jobs for the greater interest, their security along with justice must be ensured.
About the author
Nava Thakuria is a media activist based in Guwahati of northeast India. He has been covering socio-political developments of northeast India, along with its neighbours Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, for various media outlets for more than two decades.