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How can we protect journalists from harm?

Protecting the rights of journalists is one of the central premises for ensuring that the media functions efficiently and effectively as the ‘4th Arm’ of the state. Sadly, in India’s case, this hasn’t been the norm. In a recent survey undertaken by ‘Reporters without Borders’, it was reported that India ranked 136 out of 180 countries in the ‘Press Freedom Index’. The murder of fearlessly outspoken journalists in India has become a norm. In recent memory, the murders of noteworthy journalists Gauri Lankesh and Santanu Bhaumik comes as a shock to the ideal of democracy and freedom of expression which India swears by.

Both the journalists have been victims of politically motivated attacks.  While Bhaumik was killed by the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura (IPFT) while covering a roadblock instigated by clashes between IPFT & CPI (M)’s Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad, Lankesh was killed by motorcycle-borne miscreants outside of her house in Bengaluru for writing against Hindu hardliners both within Karnataka and India. While Bhaumik’s alleged killers have been arrested, Lankesh’s killers are still at large.

Reporters from across India condemned the attack. Outside the famous Press Club of India in the heart of the national capital, eminent journalist Ravish Kumar expressed his grief over Lankesh’s dastardly death and subsequent anger over the fact that PM Narendra Modi was apparently a Twitter follower of one of Lankesh’s critics who was openly supporting her death and even abusing anyone who condemned it.

The situation is particularly troubling in parts of North-East and insurgency hit Kashmir where press rights are routinely revoked and reporters and journalists frequently denied permission to cover and report events of significance.

When news groups like Eastern Mirror and Capi daily wanted to put forth the views from an outlawed separatist group, they were threatened with criminal charges under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (1967) by the Assam Rifles Paramilitary Forces who wanted the news groups not ‘to Cross the line’. The situation is even worse in Kashmir. Internet communications were cut 28 times in 5 years which led to an ‘Information Blackout’. Apart from denying people their fundamental right to express and report excesses committed against them by law enforcement agencies, it severely hindered the media from discharging its professional duties.

What then are the steps the government and other concerned agencies need to take to ensure that the ‘Objectivity’ of media is maintained? What can be done to ensure honest and rational journalists are not murdered for their alleged ‘Provocative Content’?

Firstly, by coming up with a law that seeks to protect journalists from harm can do a lot of good in the long run. Maharashtra has taken a step in this regard by passing the Maharashtra Mediapersons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017. According to its comprehensive provisions, any person committing, abetting, instigating or provoking any violent act against media persons or media houses shall be punished with up to three years’ jail term or a fine of Rs 50,000, or both. Such a law must be made on a pan-India level and implemented rigorously.

Secondly, by providing police protection to journalists in conflict hit areas, the morale of the media industry will certainly get a push enabling them to work better. Moreover, by introducing self-defense workshops for media personnel, journalists can become self-independent to defend themselves against potential attackers.

Thirdly, by creating neutral and independent areas both physically and virtually that will allow free dissemination of knowledge without any restrictions can help advance journalistic interests. Creating more Press Clubs of India (PCI) at regional levels across every state in India can serve as a way out.

But more than anything else, a strong institutional and political will is required to make sure that objective and rational journalism stays strong.



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