Murder of Indian journalists sparks concern over press freedom

Indian activists take part in a protest rally against the killing of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh at the India Gate memorial in New Delhi on September 6, 2017.

Story highlights

  • India is among the world's deadliest countries for journalists
  • Small town reporters are often most at risk

New Delhi (CNN)On the evening of September 5, Gauri Lankesh, a prominent journalist, activist and staunch critic of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was fatally shot outside of her house in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru.

Her murder sparked mass protests across India and dominated the country's news headlines. But despite the high profile nature of her death, investigators have yet to identify a single suspect or pinpoint a motive for the killing.
Weeks later, on September 20, news came of the death of another journalist. Television reporter Santanu Bhowmik was covering a road blockade in the eastern Indian state of Tripura when he was abducted by members of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), a local separatist group, according to a Press Trust of India (PTI) report.
    He was later found by police with severe injuries and rushed to hospital where he was declared dead on arrival.
    Four IPFT activists have been arrested in connection with Bhowmik's death.
    The two tragedies have refocused attention on the safety of journalists in what is the world's largest democracy.
    Why are journalists being killed? And how does India compare to other countries?
    Indian protesters hold placards in a rally condemning the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh, in Mumbai on September 6, 2017.

    How many journalists have been killed in India?

    India is among the deadliest countries for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which lists 41 instances over the past two and half decades where it is "reasonably certain that a journalist was murdered in direct reprisal for his or her work; was killed in crossfire during combat situations; or was killed while carrying out a dangerous assignment."
    That leaves India tied with Mexico, and just behind Colombia, where 47 journalists have been killed since 1992, the New York based NGO says.
    In India, the CPJ lists an additional 27 cases where its researchers are continuing to investigate the circumstances of the killings.

    Why are journalists being targeted?

    The CPJ's research shows that although most of the victims were covering politics or corruption, the problem affects the entire spectrum of reporting, with journalists covering crime, business, human rights, culture and war all figuring in the tally of those killed.
    Small town reporters, operating outside the major Indian metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai, are often most at risk.
    One case that has re-emerged is the 2002 murder of Ram Chander Chhatrapati, who in May that year published an anonymous letter written by female disciples detailing allegations of sexual abuse carried out by spiritual guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a Hindi-language daily, Poora Sach, in the city of Sirsa, in the northern state of Haryana.
    Chhatrapati was shot by two men riding a motorcycle outside his house in October that year. He died from his injuries four weeks later.
    The allegations that Chhatrapati made against Singh eventually made it to court, and in August, Rahim was sentenced to 20 years in prison for rape.
    A separate case over Chhatrapati's killing is currently underway.
    Many cases, however, never make it to court.
    "The reality of a district journalist in regional India is that if the persons whose misdeeds you are exposing have political patronage, the police will not register a case against them," Sevanti Ninan, editor of the local media watchdog The Hoot, told CNN.

    Are there other threats to press freedom?

    Yes, according to Reporters Without Borders' (RSF), the Paris-based NGO which publishes an annual index of press freedom.
    Its latest report placed India at 136 out of 180 countries, down 3 places from last year, leaving the South Asian national lagging behind the likes of Myanmar, Colombia and even Zimbabwe.
    Along with violence against journalists, RSF also cites what it called the "threat from (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi's nationalism," saying his supporters in the Hindu nationalist movement were "trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate."
    "Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals," RSF says. "Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists who are overly critical of the government."
    The upshot, it warns, is growing self-censorship in the mainstream media.
    "Over the years, the trends (in India) have been an increasing tendency on the part of the state to slap sedition cases on individuals and groups at the drop of a hat, on the part of an increasingly criminalized polity to attack journalists who investigate wrong doing, and on the part of the state to shut down the internet at the first signs of civic disorder," The Hoot's Ninan said.
    For journalists, the result is an increasingly tough work environment. "It isn't an easy life, for sure," Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee at PEN International, the international writers' body, told CNN.
    "By all accounts, it has become harder for journalists to get access to information, they are subject to physical attacks, and while attacks on social media aren't physical, they can affect the morale of some journalists. In particular, the attacks on women journalists -- with threats of rape and violence, including the recent death threats to several prominent women writers -- cannot be acceptable under any circumstances."
    Tripathi highlights a growing area of concern: Cyberspace, where abuse can come thick and fast, particularly in the case of women journalists.
    Harinder Baweja, a prominent Indian journalist and an editor at the English-language Hindustan Times, says she has reached a point where any tweet "attracts instant abuse."
    "They are like stalkers, lying in wait...I've often got rape and death threats and sometimes I'm told, 'Oh you are so ugly, who will even rape you? ... Online abuse is misogynistic and used as a weapon," she told CNN.