The recent killing of an Indian journalist and his entire family in India’s central Madhya Pradesh state has not only incensed the local media community, it’s outraged international observers and reignited a debate over impunity.
Journalists in Madhya Pradesh state are becoming increasingly angry at police for failing to make a breakthrough in the Chandrika Rai case.
The 43 year old journalist, who was known as an unbiased reporter, his wife Durga and their two teenage children, Jalaj and Nisha were found murdered in their home in the town of Umaria on February 18.
Rai had been investigating illegal mining in a prominent coal-mining region of the country.
His case was documented, mostly in the national media, but was also shocking enough to prompt at least one high profile figure, the director general of Unesco, Irina Bokova, to make a statement. It was, she said, “essential for the preservation of freedom of expression and press freedom that the authorities in Madhya Pradesh make all efforts to investigate this matter and that the perpetrators of this shocking crime be brought to justice.”
Authorities have failed to solve three separate murders in Central India, which happened over the last two years, all with unknown motives. There have been nine attacks on members of the media in the past year. Again, the authorities have failed to arrest anyone, although independent inquiries were ordered for each of these cases.
The most recent killing has puzzled police, with the Times of India reporting that announcements to have solved the murder ‘no less than three times’ only serve to highlight their incompetence.
Initially Umaria police claimed to have discovered the killers. But in the state capitalhead of police, DGP SK Rout, denied the Umaira police’s version. Those arrested, he said, were involved in abducting the son of an official, adding that there was no link between the two crimes and investigations were to continue.
A dangerous profession
On January 23, 2011, Umesh Rajput, 32, was shot dead by two masked men in Raipur. Rajput was working as a correspondent of Nai Duniya. He had lodged a complaint with the police a fortnight before the murder about the threats he’d received following publication of a news report.
Sushil Pathak, another journalist, was shot dead in Bilaspur city of Chhattisgarh on December 20, 2010 by unidentified gunmen while he was on his way to home from work. Both murders remain unsolved.
“Journalists in Umaria city were working in very critical conditions as the district administration and police were acting against them...Reports and complaints of local media were not entertained by district and police administration and mining and coal mafias were targetting scribes,” the Regional President of the Working Journalists’ Association, Manoj Kumar Dewedi, told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
For his part, state President Radha Vallabh Sharda said: “The state government was not paying due attention towards security of journalists. In many cases, journalists had demanded police protection, but their demands remained unattended.”
In certain Indian states, bribery offers are common, with government and businesses keen to promote themselves in the media, or hide some of their activities.
A freelance journalist based in Ujjain city, Badri Verma, said it’s harder for independent media. “In a state like Madhya Pradesh,” he said, “the state government and the businessmen try to influence media. Independent media could hardly operate. Journalists in smaller towns and cities could not write against the authorities and the powerful, otherwise they should be ready to face the consequence.”
Solutions and special task forces
In a press statement, the district president of MP Working Journalists’ Association Indrajit Bhog, said journalists have to fulfill the wishes of mafia operating in the region, and demanded that cases such like Rai’s should automatically be given to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
As the CBI established a reputation over the years of being India's investigative agency, with adequate resources to deal with complicated cases, demands were made for it to take up more murder and kidnapping cases.
The fact that it’s difficult even to assign the case is symbolic of impunity in certain parts of India.
While home minister Uma Shankar Gupta ruled out the CBI option, SK Rout, the state’s head of police, had handed over the case to the state’s Special Task Force.
Mithlesh Rai, Rai’s younger brother, meanwhile, has declared a cash reward of Rs 2,00,000 (US$ 4000) for information leading to arrest.
“We are not satisfied with the investigation so far,” said Mithlesh. “The police are working on various theories and complicating the matter further.”
Politics, pulling off air and the protection of journalists
Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in Central India are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party which has, before now, expressed its displeasure over certain media reports. The Supreme Court of India had to intervene for the resumption of ETV news, a local cable in Chhattisgarh, in December 2011. It had been taken off air for broadcasting a story alleging Chief Minister Raman Singh’s influence in allotting mines in the Sidhi district neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The chief minister had openly threatened ETV and another Hindi newspaper Patrika if they continued to publish the news.
Though Article 19 of the Indian constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, some state governments are using the media for their own benefit.
Minister for Health and spokesman for Madhya Pradesh government Narottam Mishra denies the allegation. Speaking to the DCMF, he said his government has “the utmost respect for the constitution of India. We know Article 19 guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression.. We have always respected the fourth pillar of democracy in India. We are not against media, but disapprove yellow journalism.”
But he’s almost alone in his denial.
Press Council Chairman Justice Markandey Katju said he’s so concerned by recent murders that he’s committed to sending teams across the country to uncover the facts.
"Since I feel that this freedom is under threat in many states, I intend to send fact finding teams to some of the states from where we are getting a large number of such complaints," Katju said, adding that he’s already written a letter to the chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh in this regard.
With three unsolved murders of journalists in Central India alone, the world’s biggest democracy seems to be heading towards dangerous levels of impunity.
To safeguard the democratic values on which the country is founded, it’s essential that the union and the state government act to protect the freedom of expression and prosecute those responsible violating it.
Shuriah Niazi is a correspondent in Central India covering political, business, religious and social issues. His work has previously appeared on the BBC and in 2006 he won a Sarojini Naidu Award.