Don’t ignore the alarm bells

Time is nigh for an effective law for protection of journalists and a robust response mechanism to media rights violations

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 23rd Sep 2017   12:04 am Updated: 23rd Sep 2017   12:11 am

September has turned out to be a black month for the fourth estate. Two journalists were killed in quick succession in the last 15 days.

The issue of safety and security of journalists in India has caught the attention of the nation after the brutal murder of Gauri Lankesh, editor of Lankesh Patrike, in Bengaluru on September 5 and Santanu Bhowmick, a reporter of local TV news channel ‘Dinrat’ by activists of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura on September 20 at Mandai of West Tripura district.

Gauri was more an outspoken activist than a puritan journalist and Bhowmick was a promising young journalist from India’s hinterland.

The Press Council of India (PCI) has recommended that a law be enacted making attacks on journalists a cognisable offence to be investigated by a special task force. The Indian Journalist Union (IJU) has demanded immediate enactment of Safety of Journalists Act as recommended by the PCI. But will a special law to protect journalists in India ensure their safety and security?

Not Enough Support

Mediapersons do not enjoy any special status in the Constitution. Unlike in the US, freedom of media is an inclusive part of the freedom of expression of the citizen of India with some reasonable restrictions guaranteed by the Constitution. Moreover, there is no Central law to protect journalists.

This April, Maharashtra enacted the Maharashtra Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of violence and damage or loss to property) Act, 2017. However, the Act offers no more protection than already offered under the existing laws.

On the contrary, the Maharashtra law in the name of protecting journalists dilutes the provisions of punishment under IPC and CrPC for the same crime. As per its provisions, anyone who commits or attempts to commit or abets, instigates or provokes the Commission of any act of violence against journalists or media houses, shall be punished with a jail term of up to three years or with a fine up to Rs 50,000 or with both.

Unlike the IPC where punishment for causing ‘grievous hurt’ is 10 years in prison and for ‘attempt to murder’, it is life term, the new law penalises violence against journalists with only three years in prison. The Maharashtra journalists’ protection law is based on a similar law for the protection of doctors. The doctors’ protection law also provides for a jail term of three years and a fine of up to Rs 50,000 for anyone convicted of physical violence against on-duty medicare personnel or institutions. It is also meant to be non-bailable.

Moreover, all the journalists are not regular employees of media houses — many of them are stringers or work on an assignment basis.

Behind Neighbours

Pakistan, which ranked 139 of the 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporter’s Without Borders (RSF), too has prepared a new law for the welfare and protection of its journalists. The information minister of Pakistan revealed in March that a draft Bill titled Journalist Welfare and Protection Bill-2017 had been sent to various press clubs and media outlets seeking recommendations for improvement. However, nothing concrete has come out in Pakistan till date on it. Attacks against journalists there continue with impunity.

The index, which was released on April 26, 2017, showed India’s ranking just three places — at 136 — above Pakistan’s and a notch below war-torn Palestine (135). Bhutan and Nepal, India’s other neighbours, were ranked 84th and 100th respectively. According to The Committee to Protect Journalists, 41 journalists have been killed in India since 1992.

The Press Freedom Index is prepared on the basis of statistics of attacks on journalists. However, in the absence of an integrated media freedom monitoring mechanism involving all the stakeholders, in many cases the figures of media rights violations go unreported.

Journalist organisations of Assam had informed a six-member sub-committee of the PCI in June last year that 26 journalists were killed in the State since 1991 by militant outfits, timber mafia and criminal gangs. Among these, there are cases of disappearance of at least two journalists and also a couple of cases of mysterious death.

Response Mechanism

It is believed that many such cases of murder and attacks on journalists in other States have gone unreported or underreported. Therefore, a robust response mechanism to media rights violations in India is equally important with an effective law for the protection of journalists. Safety training among mediapersons is also important, particularly for those who work in conflict zones and in a hostile environment.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has evolved a set of dos and dont’s for ensuring safety and security of journalists. Gauri purportedly told Kanhaiya Kumar when he met her last at her house that she had built a double door for protection as she feared attacks on her.

Building a double door will indeed enhance the security if miscreants try to attack a journalist by breaking into her house, but there are other important steps that can be easily followed such as frequently changing timings and routes of travel and using WiFi-monitored CCTV.
The government, media houses and journalists bodies should work together to impart safety training to mediapersons. Insurance coverage to journalists, especially to those who work in a hostile atmosphere is also important.

The cold-blooded murder of Gauri and the killing of Bhowmik have sounded the alarm bell about where the freedom of press and protection of journalists is heading for India. The Central government should come out with a constitutional guarantee of freedom of media as well as safety and security of its journalists.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)