Building a republic of fear

IRONICALLY, at a time when the Indian media has never been more subservient to power and never more assiduous about being faithful to the script dictated by the State, attacks on journalists in the country have registered a sharp uptick.

Building a republic of fear

CODE RED: Should journalists not have the right to safety in the course of their work?

Pamela Philipose

Pamela Philipose
Senior Journalist

IRONICALLY, at a time when the Indian media has never been more subservient to power and never more assiduous about being faithful to the script dictated by the State, attacks on journalists in the country have registered a sharp uptick. It is also ironic that the self-confidence that should have come with handsome electoral victories — such as the one Adityanath achieved in UP in 2017 — has only made our chief ministers less, not more, tolerant towards media independence. 

The attacks come from a range of actors and straddle a broad spectrum — from trolling and dismissal, to censorship and the ultimate censorship of murder. Journalists have been called ‘blackmailers’, ‘anti-nationalists’, ‘presstitutes’, and some months ago an actor-turned-politician of Tamil Nadu had, in a Facebook post, made the scurrilous remark that women journalists could not become ‘reporters or anchors unless they sleep with top bosses’.

The pattern is striking and three aspects of it need highlighting. First, the attempt is made to squeeze out any vestige of independence and debase the profession to such an extent that public perception is built that journalists are a degenerate lot. This, in turn, creates the conditions under which they can be assaulted with no questions being asked. An occasional video, such as the recent one that exposed an SHO and a constable thrashing a television journalist in Shamli, UP — he was treated in despicable ways thereafter according to his testimony, jailed, stripped, beaten, and urinated upon — may provide a glimpse of the extent of such assaults, but in most instances, cameras and phones are confiscated and all visible evidence destroyed by the assaulters. 

The second aspect is the creation of a deliberate scenario of intimidation. Journalists have been run over while commuting, have had petrol bombs hurled at their homes, or found themselves homeless because the landlord had been intimidated into throwing them out. Many have been the recipients of threats. They have been told that information, such as where their children went to school, is known; or, in some instances, warned that they would ‘meet the same fate as Gauri Lankesh’ — the intrepid Bengaluru-based editor and journalist who was murdered in her home after she had just returned from work. Even complaints to the police have never brought any real measure of protection. Sandeep Sharma of Bhind, MP, was investigating the nexus between the local sand mining mafia and the police for a local television channel. In July 2017, he wrote a detailed letter to the DSP, expressing fears for his life. By the next March, he had been crushed to death by a mining dumper, with the case being registered as an accident. 

Linked to intimidation is a third aspect — the ongoing construction of the republic of fear. So strong is the patina of fear over journalists that they are driven to clamp the manacles of self-censorship upon themselves, if only for their self-preservation. Fear is most present when speaking about ‘truth that is living yet’ — in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s deathless words. When your face is morphed on to that of a pornstar and your phone number and residential address is made to circulate on social media; when you are targeted by paramilitary forces wielding pellet guns; when the police in plainclothes knock at your door at night and spirit you away in a car, you are left alone to wrestle with a racing heart. Not many have tried to define this fear as Ravish Kumar has done in his recent book, The Free Voice: ‘Fear can be real. It can also be imaginary; the factor which creates and controls imaginary fears is very real. So speaking out will never be easy….When you speak, you must first challenge yourself….To speak, you must persevere; it isn’t a single act done in a moment or without effort. You strain your entire being from within.’

We are collectively responsible for allowing this ‘shooting of the messenger’ in the plain light of day. There is a story, incidentally, behind the phrase, and it is told by Plutarch, the Graeco-Roman historian. Grave news reached the king of Armenia, Tigranes, that his enemy was advancing upon his kingdom. So riled was he on receiving this information that he ordered the messenger who had brought the news to be put to death. By this one step, he had signalled to his courtiers how incapable he was of being able to handle the truth, and nobody among them could summon the courage to advise him on the true state of his vulnerabilities, preferring to flatter him instead as the invincible one. A day soon came when his enemy’s armies were at his door, and that was the end of poor Tigranes. 

What comes through in this story is not just the vulnerability of messengers, as a tribe, but of their importance. We are right to be cynical about the integrity of some journalists, or about the corporate capture of many media institutions, but this should not lead us to dismiss the crucial role journalism has to play in a country that claims democratic credentials. 

The public inertia with which every attack on a journalist is met is profoundly disturbing. This, after all, is not just an issue to be left to journalistic bodies and professionals. Should journalists not have the right to safety and security in the course of their normal work? A silence reigns over this issue — not even those in the media seem interested in the question. Media owners, in their anxiety to control the cost of operations, have ended up compromising the safety and economic security of their employees. Shouldn’t we, as a country, recognise the special protections that journalists require and consider legislating on the issue? Should we not speak out forcibly when journalists are intimidated, wounded, killed or trolled? 

It is the silence of ‘good people’ that has allowed this degeneration to set in. Indian journalism is being killed, one attack at a time.


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