On September 6, 2017, while we were attending a class on the influx of fake news and its utilisation by authoritarian bodies for their political campaigns in our journalism school, the news about veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder broke out. Our dean, a renowned journalist herself, paused the class and joined us in a meeting with the other faculty members, all of whom were deeply disturbed by the news. Gauri Lankesh, then 55 years old and the editor of a weekly newspaper ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’, was assassinated at 8:00 p.m. on September 5, 2017 by three men who arrived on a motorbike and fired at her in front of her house. She was hit by three bullets which damaged her heart and lungs, as per the post mortem report.
Few days after the murder, several journalists who are based out of the nation’s capital, New Delhi, received threatening messages from unknown numbers. All of these were written in Hindi and referred to Gauri Lankesh’s death. The message was quite clear, “if anyone in this country dares to write anything against Modi, RSS, or BJP, that person will not be spared. The existence of such persons shall be removed along with the Muslims.” It also cast Gauri Lankesh as an ‘anti-nationalist’ and ‘anti-Hindu’, two terms that have been in rampant use in the years since BJP’s selection as the ruling governing party of India.
We came to know about all of this in the year when we would graduate from school and enter the world as journalists – some would cover politics, some would venture into the world of entertainment while some would take the greyer path of rural reporting. Although till date, none of us has written a ground-breaking story and some have also moved out of journalism entirely, the truth remains that to be a journalist in India – no matter how big or small – one has to put a timer on one’s life. Especially in an era, when for the very first time since the Second World War, the leading powers in the world are right-winged, conservative chauvinists.
In America, President Donald Trump has declared the press as “the enemy of the American People” for reporting against his bombastic nature of blending facts with lies and misinformation. According to a Washington Post report of June 10, 2019, the President has crossed the 10,000 threshold in his delivery of false statements and misguided claims. The Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former Director of Military Intelligence and the former Minister of Defence, has notoriously tightened his grip on the media since the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown. The President’s government has already gained the reputation of an authoritarian body through its widespread imprisonment of journalists who were charged under a broad counter-terrorism law that expanded itself to include dissent as a form of terrorism. Under President Vladimir Putin, most of Russia gets its news from state-controlled television outlets – a dangerous source of misinformation and fake news. As for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, he managed to curb the press completely by accusing them of fascism and claiming to be threatened by its criticisms.
At home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with his party BJP has also managed to pose as the neologists of their times by coining terms to vilify the press starkly. Terms like ‘sickulars’ and ‘libtards’ (offensive variants of the words ‘seculars’ and ‘liberals’) are utilised by the Prime Minister and his fellow Home Minister, Amit Shah, to refer to anyone who raises a voice against their intolerant rule and much like, the German word ‘Lügenpresse’ (a Nazi slur referring to ‘Lying Press’), this party has its own term to refer to the press known as ‘Presstitudes’ (a term picked up by BJP social media supporters after the term was used by a former Indian Army Chief and present Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways in the Second Modi ministry, General VK Singh, against the press).
The journalists in India have been under a constant violation of press freedom which includes police violence against journalists, ambush by opposition parties, and attacks instigated by politically motivated criminal groups. What is worse is that the media has turned against itself in keeping with the government’s strongly discriminating Hindutva ideology. Media houses such as Republic TV or ZEE are flourishing due to their ideological affiliation with the ruling party. On the other hand, media that are more inclined to the left are tagged under the notorious term anti-national, which by now has gained a criminal connotation under the Modi government. In India, dissent is considered to be synonymous to anti-national.
According to a RSF (Reporters Without Border) report, ‘Criminal prosecutions are meanwhile often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code, under which anyone who “attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in [India], shall be punished with [imprisonment for life]”. Introduced by the British colonisers, nearly 150 years ago, this draconian law has been misused to its last morsel by the government whose supporters now fearlessly lynch those who do not belong to their community and do not abide by their ideology.
The most unsparing consequence of India’s curbing press freedom has had its ultimate impact on Kashmir. As the leading party stripped the state of its seven decades-long autonomous status claiming that this would lead Kashmir to its prosperity, it quickly followed that very claim by throwing the state into the abyss of a complete black-out. Journalists were barred from moving around the city to collect reports about the state of the imposed military rule; furthermore, the internet cut-out prohibited them from uploading or updating the news for days. Photojournalists had to send out their work in USBs through those who were flying out of the region. For those living in the region, they were cooped inside their offices with the military and the police forces surrounding them in thousands.
While the chain around the journalists’ throat in mainstream media tightened, freelance journalists, especially those in militia states such as Kashmir, face a greater, quieter threat. As freelancers, the first threat we face is the lack of protection. Not that a full-time journalist is any safer than us but as a freelancer we take it upon ourselves as to where to travel, which story to cover, what kind of people to meet and ultimately how to take care of ourselves under any circumstance. While there is zero allowance, the absence of a press card leaves a journalist vulnerable to every kind of threat. Even when the threat looms large, the news of the death of a freelance journalist, especially one who is reporting on rural development, takes quite a while to reach the purview of the mainstream media.
“With ultranationalist leaders who are constantly pushing the nations on the brinks of civil wars, the fourth estate’s tendency to maintain a neutral stance must be shredded.”
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner
The death of Shahjahanpur-based journalist, Jagendra Singh – who set on fire on June 1, 2015, allegedly by the goons of state minister Ram Murti Verma – was one of those rare cases which were reported by the mainland news publishers. However, his story is terrifyingly familiar to those reporters who traverse into the hinterlands of the nation, working as the lone troopers of the fourth estate. The activist and politician, Yogendra Yadav said, “Accident karvaana is very common in these parts, and powerful people are behind it. It is even more common to book reporters in false cases and get them jailed. So many are assaulted, and all of us have received threats.”
Other than carrying the constant threats from high profile officials such as District Magistrates and local police stations, rural journalists are also obligated to carry on with their duty for meagre pay and sometimes, unfortunately, for free. From personal experience, it can be claimed that while publishers are glad to pick up a story and take it forward, the payroll is a subject of fantastic tales in freelance journalism. Some editors also get away with the claim that freelance journalists do not fall under the definition of “real, seasoned journalists” and hence, perhaps, do not “require” the kind of protection or assurance that is provided to those working out of an office.
As mentioned earlier in the article, most of the problems of a freelance journalist stem from the fact that none of us is provided with a press card. According to Uttara Gangopadhyay, an independent journalist, “For a freelancer, the lack of an accredited card is equal to suffering from an identity crisis. I know I’m genuine, but how do I prove it to the other party?” Without a press card, it also becomes difficult for the freelance journalist to converse with government officials who don’t even cooperate with seasoned journalists, let alone the freelancers. This might prevent a potential story from taking any shape at all.
Reporting in 2020, along with its unprecedented relationship with the pandemic, is a narrow lane that divides itself into two paths. On the one hand, there is the impending threat of the ruling party and its followers whose heavy onslaughts are clear indications of the inception offascism. On the other hand, there is little support from the organisations who are keen on publishing anything that sells to their consumer. However, this is also the time and the decade (if I dare say) when the fourth estate will have to play a crucial role since the Second World War. With ultra-nationalist leaders who are constantly pushing the nations on the brinks of civil wars, the fourth estate’s tendency to maintain a neutral stance must be shredded. Objectivity cannot be the tone of the reportage when ideals are distorted to serve personal credo.
Barnana Sarkar works as a freelance journalist in Mumbai. She received her Post Graduate Diploma from the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, where her specialisation included reporting on rural development and art & culture.