“A free press is one of the pillars of democracy.”
Sumera B Reshi
On June 14 half an hour before when the Muslims in Kashmir would break the fasts, unknown gunmen surfaced in the press enclave in Srinagar and shot dead a prominent Kashmiri journalist Syed Shujaat Bukhari along with his two PSO’s. The brutal killing of an editor of influential local daily Rising Kashmir shook the human conscience.
Bukhari was editing four newspapers and was one of the prominent faces of Kashmir journalism who had survived three attacks in past and was round the clock protected by government forces. While his killing is attributed to his involvement for track-II diplomacy between India and Pakistan, however, the threats to the journalists across the globe are looming large. Disturbingly, India which has the right to freedom of speech and expression as fundamental right has recently slipped down to further ranks when it comes to the protection of journalists. Even the country has been termed as one of the deadliest country for journalists in recent times. However, the scenario at global level unfortunately is equally disturbing for the pressmen.
Intimidation, non-lethal violence, threats and prosecution are as rampant as ever, from Mexico and Brazil in the Americas to swaths of the former Soviet Union and supposedly freer jurisdictions such as India and Bangladesh. According to International Federation of Journalists (IJF), in 2017, there were 82 deaths – the lowest death tally in a decade. Even in the world’s largest democracy – India, you can propagate lies on social media with utter impunity, but if you seek to tell the truth you can be maimed, threatened and ultimately eliminated. This is what happened to Gauri Lankesh, a veteran reporter for a Kannada-language newspaper, and most outspoken liberal journalist, Shujat Bukhari in Kashmir. Lankesh and Bukhari bore the brunt of the truth. Both were gunned down brutally with least chances of survival. The messengers elsewhere work under siege from all sides and Shujaat Bukhari wasn’t an exception. Journalists in conflict zones work in dangerous environments and are on constant threat from a hidden hand and under pressure from lawsuits and internet trolls. Doubting and questioning the media has become a preferred weapon for those who are anti-system and are allergic to peace.
On average, every five days, somewhere in the world, a journalist is murdered for being a voice of voiceless and a brave heart. For this heinous crime, no one is persecuted, thus creating an atmosphere of impunity that extends beyond death threats and violence. Imprisonment of journalists is at an all-time high, and members of the press routinely suffer harassment and intimidation while on assignment. Today, journalism is one of the most dangerous professions anywhere. Messengers are at risk everywhere. Media freedom around the world has fallen to the lowest level for at least a decade, according to a study that shows journalists are threatened by government censorship, organized crime, commercial pressures caused by the growth of the internet and those who run stealth parallel governments. Reporters are under siege around the world, even in countries once celebrated as free-press bastions as stated by Reporters Sans Borders.
In present times, the best-publicized attacks on the media came from the American President Donald Trump. Throughout his political career, whether he is out of office or in office, he has systematically sought to denigrate the media. He has attacked individual journalists and has repeatedly condemned news organizations for publishing what he calls “fake news.”
Among his main targets have been newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as well-regarded TV news channels such as CNN and CBS. However, he speared the ultra-right-wing Fox News. Experts opine that Trump’s attack on these prestigious media outlets will not influence the respectable media and their traditional audiences; they will have the effect of undermining their credibility among his millions of followers, and this to the detriment of American democracy.
Thomas Hughes, the executive director of Article 19, the freedom of expression campaign group and author of the report in conjunction with V-Dem, a political and social database wrote as “Unfortunately, our findings show that freedom of expression is under attack in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes.”
“Journalists were threatened by intimidation, prosecution and even murder in some parts of the world,” added Hughes. As per the report, “Global media freedom is at its lowest level since the start of the century.”
According to the experts, 2017 was the worst year than ever for the press. In the past five years, the level of media freedom constraints and violations has risen 14 per cent and according to the report published by Reporters Sans Borders, “Violations of the freedom to inform are less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well.”
All over the world, the space for free media shrinks further and few voices of dissent find themselves either under attack or forced to flee. Journalists face death threats in their day to day reporting activities both in countries in conflict and those seemingly at peace.
Undoubtedly South Asia’s media landscape according to experts is rich, diverse and contradictory as well. However, the journalists live under constant fear of getting killed someday. That risk and fear shows no signs of abating. Day to day activities have become equally deadly for the journalists who challenge the government’s narrative or the other party in the fray.
Indeed life is harsh for those who question the people at the helm of affairs and there is also tremendous freedom and privileges for those who are smart enough to avoid certain red lines. Journalism is a thorny business. Although journalists play the vital role in preserving honest and decent government. Nothing is perfect in this world, not even those who rule us, thus the performance of the government will not improve if its sins of commission and omission are not brought to the attention of the public. In a democracy like India, journalists keep voters aware of the developments so that they can make informed electoral choices. In this game of hide & seek, give & take and make or break, journalists become scapegoats and often die untimely bizarre deaths.
This year Gauri Lankesh and Shujat Bukhari fell to numerous bullets fired by those who don’t like the truth or fear the free speech. These are control freaks who hate to explore an alternate path to the unrelenting chaos in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. In every society be it traditional or modern, these control freaks hide themselves in a number of layers and when something goes against their dictates, they stealthily come to action and slaughter anyone who crosses their path or hinders their nasty businesses.
Take the case of Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler.com, and an online news network based in the Philippines. Ressa’s website had become an invaluable source of information about the extrajudicial killings linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” For her enterprising reporting, Ressa received more than 80 death threats.
Then there is the case of William Ntege, a journalist who reported on protests against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to run in the next presidential election, despite constitutional prohibitions preventing him from doing so. Ntege was severely beaten by police for his coverage and held in jail for more than 10 days.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online, was found dead a week after the news outlet published an exclusive report written by Shahzad that suggested al Qaeda had infiltrated the Pakistani navy ahead of a brazen assault on a naval base.
Karun Misra was hot at close range while riding his motorcycle. Karun had written stories about a particularly dangerous business – illegal mining. Mafia hit men first came for Karun after he refused bribes and ignored threats.
“The unchecked, unsolved murders of journalists who seek to inform their societies and the world is one of the greatest threats to press freedom today,” said Elisabeth Witchel, the report’s lead author and CPJ’s consultant on its global campaign against impunity.
According to IFJ statement, the lack of action to eradicate the impunity for killings and other attacks on media professionals continues to fuel violence targeting them. The worst year on record was 2009 with 152 killings, following the horrific Ampatuan Massacre – also known as the Maguindanao massacre – which included 32 media workers who were slaughtered in an ambush of a political convoy.
Almost all the countries have proven hostile to freedom of the press. In Russia, the censors monitor everything that is written or said by journalists, and several reporters have come to die under mysterious circumstances. In China, too, the censors are ever vigilant to detect anything critical of the government or the Communist Party. Moreover, in China, journalists rot in jails while others find themselves permanently unemployed.
According to data independently compiled by The Hoot, a media watchdog, and IndiaSpend, Reporters Sans Borders, called India “Asia’s deadliest country for media personnel, ahead of both Pakistan and Afghanistan”.
Further, Committee for the Protection of Journalists affirms this statement with their compilation of data showing that for the year of 2015, there were only two deaths of journalists in Pakistan and no deaths in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan seemingly enjoy relatively free media; governments do frequently resort to more subtle means to influence coverage of their activities. Among these are rationing the supply of newsprint to newspapers and cancelling contracts for government advertising on a variety of outlets. These tactics usually have the desired effort of securing more favourable coverage.
However, in Africa and the Middle East, the same results are achieved through state ownership of newspapers, radio stations and television stations. In all too many of these countries, the idea of a free press is simply a bad joke. But if journalists and journalism are experiencing political pressure in many parts of the world, they are experiencing severe economic pressures in North America as well.
The advent of the internet and digital communications has led to a severe shrinkage for most conventional media outlets, especially newspapers. Advertisers have shifted their focus from newspapers to social media. The result has been a tidal wave of red ink for one news organization after another. For example, in smaller communities across North America, many newspapers have simply closed down, depriving the citizenry of vital sources of information. In larger communities, most newspapers have found it necessary to affect economies by reducing the size of their staff and the size or frequency of their publications. For instance, Toronto’s Globe and Mail has become a much slimmer paper.
Despite the free press slogans, there are big stories taking place throughout parts of the world where people are being crushed and slaughtered by vicious regimes, and journalists in many cases are restricted from entering some areas because rogue leaders would rather their deeds be kept from the bright light of the world’s free press. Free press is the voice of the freedom which have come under siege by the powerful but the lovers of free speech will never surrender to people who try muzzle press freedom. Despite all the dangers, free press will always play a key role in moving forward because truth is more important than politics. Politicians come and go, bastions of truth like Shujat Bukhari will always be torchbearers. Unquestionably, voice of freedom may be under siege, but voices like Shujat’s will never be mute. They will resonate everywhere.
This Story Earlier Published In Print Edition of ‘ The Legitimate’