As freedom shrinks, it’s hard times for investigative journalism

In October last year, a young journalist came to meet me when I was in New Delhi for the presentation of the annual PII-ICRC Awards. She was a former winner of the award, an outstanding journalist. For a series of stories she had done for a national magazine, focusing on the trafficking of children from Assam to Gujarat and Punjab to ‘Hinduise’ them as it were, she was vilified, threatened and mercilessly trolled. Her character was questioned, obscene pictures sent every day to her email account, and a case filed against her in Guwahati for inciting communal hatred. She had covered child trafficking for ten years; her stories had the desired impact with many children benefiting. In this case, she had spoken to all ‘stakeholders’ connected with the story. Instead of countering her reports with fact and reason, those in the dock resorted to the use of force, threats and other vile means. Several other journalists in India are facing similar ire from groups and outfits who fancy themselves as custodians of our nationhood and national pride and consider dissent of any sort as akin to sedition. Do violence and such loutish behaviour have a place in the practice of Hinduism?

And now, the editor of The News Minute, Dhanya Rajendran, has been abused and trolled by (supposedly) actor Vijay’s fans who did not like a comment she made in relation to a film of his. An FIR was registered and four persons were charged for their threats and abuse on Twitter targeting the journalist. Finally, today, actor Vijay did what we were hoping he would do – calm down his ‘fans’ and tell them such behaviour is not acceptable. A report in the Hindustan Times says “Tamil superstar Vijay has asked his fans to not abuse women. In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, he has asked his fans and supporters to not post anything on social media that can be taken as an insult to women”. This is what he said: “I respect women in society. Anybody has the freedom of expression to criticise anybody’s film. In my opinion, whatever the circumstances, no one should reveal contemptuous or disgraceful comments on woman. I urge everyone not to post anything on Internet with the instinct that harms women.” That’s welcome news, indeed. May his tribe increase!

A study commissioned by The Hoot finds that there have been 54 attacks on journalists and 25 cases of threatening them in the past 16 months. Seven journalists were killed, but “reasonable evidence of their journalism being the motive for the murder is available only in one case”, says Geetha Seshu writing about the ‘silencing of journalists’ for the website. The attacks are not just from vigilante groups. “The data with The Hoot shows that law-makers and law-enforcers are the prime culprits in the attacks and threats on the media,” Seshu points out. Overall, the situation seems quite frightening, and not only in India.

Agence France-Presse reports that press freedom has hit the lowest point in 13 years, threatened by US President Donald Trump's media bashing and restrictions pursued by both democratic and authoritarian governments. The report cites US-based Freedom House, a human rights organisation, as saying that only 13 per cent of people worldwide enjoy a ‘free press’. The Freedom House survey highlighted growing concerns over efforts by governments around the world to clamp down on media and dissent. “Political leaders and other partisan forces in many democracies -- including the United States, Poland, the Philippines, and South Africa -- attacked the credibility of independent media and fact-based journalism, rejecting the traditional watchdog role of the press in free societies,” says Jennifer Dunham, who headed the research. Significantly, the report mentions press rights are being eroded by the efforts of politicians in democratic states to shape news coverage and delegitimise media outlets.

However, many countries fare far better than Mexico, possibly one of the worst countries to be a journalist today, Afghanistan and Somalia being the other two. At least 104 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, while 25 others have disappeared and are presumed dead. 

Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age is a new global study produced by WAN-IFRA for UNESCO that examines the growing risks confronting forms of journalism dependent upon confidential sources and whistleblowers. It finds that the legal frameworks that support protection of journalistic sources at international, regional and country levels are under significant strain – a development that is seen to represent a direct challenge to the established universal human rights of freedom of expression and privacy, and one that especially constitutes a threat to the sustainability of investigative journalism.


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