UN concern over scribe’s death

S. Madhusudhana Rao

It may be a mere coincidence that on the day a United Nations agency has asked the Indian government to investigate the death of a journalist probing the Madhya Pradesh scam, another scribe who was on a different mission was killed in Mumbai. The murders once again confirm how dangerous this country has become for people who want to unravel truth.

In a classic case of whodunit, Akshay Singh, a TV journalist for a private Hindi news channel, collapsed while talking to the family members of Namrata Damor, an accused in the scam, in Meghnagar of Jhabua district in MP on July 4. Local doctors described his death as cardiac arrest. However, the circumstances in which he died raised suspicions and no satisfactory answer has come so far from officials. In fact, Namrata’s death itself was shrouded in mystery.

She was a 19-year-old student when her body was found near railway tracks in Ujjain in January 2012. Police called it suicide though medical reports had contradicted the claim. However, she was suspected to have secured admission in a medical college through an accused in the government jobs and college admissions scandal. Now, CBI has started investigating the Vyapam scam following a Supreme Court directive after a national outcry over a number of unexplained deaths of accused in scam-related cases. Akshay Singh has become, unwittingly, a victim of the deep-rooted conspiracy that has rocked Madhya Pradesh.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova has called on Indian authorities to investigate the mysterious death of Akshay Singh saying, “It is essential for rule of law and for society’s right to be kept informed, that the authorities do all they can to clarify the cause of Singh’s death. Reporters must be able to carry out their professional duties in a safe environment and crimes against them must not go unpunished.” The UN agency is mandated to defend freedom of expression.

Amidst UN concerns came the killing of a reporter, Raghavendra Dubey, in Mumbai. His body, bearing several wounds, was found on Friday morning. He was an innocent victim of a case in which two reporters were brutally beaten up when they went to cover a police raid on a bar. The duo was chased and attacked allegedly by bar staff a few hours earlier. The midnight drama took place near a police post. It is not clear why Dubey had visited the police post at 3am. But it is believed that he had gone there to check on the reporters and to seek details about the attack. After getting some assurances from the police, Dubey had left the police post and on his way back home he was believed to have been murdered.

Still horrific was the case of Jagendra Singh, a freelance journalist who was a fierce critic of politicians, particularly those belonging to the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, was allegedly burnt to death, by none other than the police themselves, after a raid on his home on June 1.

While being treated in hospital for burns covering more than half of his body, Singh, in a police statement, said a police officer, Sriprakash Rai, had doused him in petrol and set him on fire. However, police had claimed that Singh killed himself when police attempted to arrest him as he was “wanted in a crime.”

According to the London-based International News Safety Institute (INSI), India is one of the most dangerous places for journalists to function fearlessly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) statistics reveals that 35 scribes had been killed in India since 1992. While 22 were murdered, the rest had lost their lives covering dangerous assignments.

While dozens of media personnel throughout the world lose their lives and limbs every year covering conflicts, sectarian clashes, riots, disasters and the like, deliberate and premeditated killing of journalists, particularly those who oppose the ruling dispensation, who fight for social justice and investigate scandals, goes against the spirit of democracy and freedom of expression.

The fact that worldwide 1139 journalists had lost their lives in the line of duty since 1992 shows the profession has become one of the most dangerous particularly in countries where dissent, criticism, truth and transparency are not tolerated. Dictatorships, autocracies, theocracies and the like are known enemies of freedom of expression. But democracies that are supposed to thrive on open debate and transparent governance should not allow the truth to be killed. In fact, they should protect those who are trying to reveal it. This will also apply to whistleblowers. However, in safeguarding the interests of journalists and whistleblowers, our governments at central and states’ levels have miserably failed.

It’s common knowledge that attackers of journalists go scot free most of the time or face little punishment. Blame it on the law or police or the system in which they operate there is no effective mechanism to deal with murderous attacks on journalists because their profession is seen only as writing reports, not exposing dangerous truths that imperil their lives. As long as this mind-set continues, some journalists have to pay with their lives if they try to expose the corrupt, the greedy and the self-interested.

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