Myth of the safe scribe / The subcontinental freedom of press-oppression

[ Open Magazine, 2 May 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 8 May 2014 ]

On April 19th, bullets fired by ‘unknown’ gunmen injured Hamid Mir, acclaimed Pakistani journalist, columnist and political talk-show host for Geo TV. His brother alleges that Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI is behind the attack. Known to be a strong votary for democratic rule in Pakistan and consistently against religion-inspired militancy, he has never been in the good books of the intelligence establishment. The subcontinent is a dangerous place, especially for people who consistently speak truth to power. This danger can often be in the form of threat to life, especially if you are in media expressing the right thing at the right time. Since I write for daily and weekly newspapers in Pakistan, I happen to have acquaintances in Lahore and Karachi who have over time become close friends. I have met some of them. One of them is Raza Rumi.

My Pathan broadcaster friend Wajahat S Khan had introduced me to Raza Rumi. It was Raza who first welcomed the idea of me publishing in The Friday Times, the Najam Sethi–edited weekly. Raza was and still is a consulting editor with the publication. It is important to state that quite a view of my pieces published there have been quite critical of the human rights and civil liberties situation in Pakistan and I believe that the editorial team is in no small measure responsible for that. Raza has been very active in Indo-Pak peace initiatives and as the Director of the Jinnah Institute, a think-tank, has been a key participant in Track 2 dialogues of all sorts. He has an ongoing love affair with all things Delhi and especially revels in the bygone cultural space of North India that encompassed Delhi and his favourite city and hometown, Lahore. He had recently published an exquisite travelogue, Delhi by heart. I was among the people he shared his manuscript with for comments, before it was published. On March 28th, I heard that Raza had been shot at by a group of ‘unknown’ assailants. He survived. I suspect that his views, which have always been supportive of greater regional cooperation in Southasia, and especially between Pakistan and the Indian Union, are not entirely unrelated to the reasons of this attack.

After anchoring is television show, Raza Rumi was on his way to the Data Darbar shrine. That was when bullets rained on his car. His driver succumbed to the gunshots while his bodyguard was seriously wounded. For a long time, he has been one of the most vocal champions of secularism in Pakistan. He has stuck his neck out for the continued repression of the hapless religious minorities of Pakistan who have very few real supporters. Probably the most consequential stance vis-à-vis the attack on him, Raza Rumi has been one the staunchest critics of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other extremist Islamic groups that are directly opposed to his vision of a pluralist and harmonious society. Specifically, the Express Media group, for which he often writes and whose TV channel he does his show for, has been attacked five times with 3 staff members being killed in a attack earlier this year. Raza Rumi has appealed to the government to provide him security and prevent him from becoming the ‘victim of an ideology asserted with bullets and bombers’. Most TV channels in Pakistan basically underplayed the incident and conveniently reported about Srinivasan and IPL.

Now there is a feeling perpetrated by Delhi-based ‘watchers’ and other peddlers of the ‘idea of India’ that things are radically different on this of the Radcliffe, that this is some kind of a safe haven for journalists and fearless reporting. Of course, the usual exceptions apply. Local journalists in ‘disputed’ territories of the Indian Union have been paying with their life and limb for decades now. You can be beaten up with bamboo canes and dragged along the road by the Indian police and Central Reserve Police Force if you interview protesting students or take pictures that the powers-to-be don’t want being taken – as Azhar Qadri of Kashmir Tribune and Showkat Shafi, a Srinagar-based freelance photojournalist found out in painful ways. These are not exceptional events but simply illustrative. Delhi journalists who go visit often enjoy embedded junkets masquerading as reporting. As for foreign journalists who might be critical – they are simply classified as persona-non-grata and are denied entry into the Indian Union, as was the recent case with the famous American journalist David Barsamian. A closer look tells us that the threat to journalists is more widespread in the Indian Union and not only limited to separatist insurgency-hit areas.

Strangely enough or may be it is not that strange that fame works for you, in terms of protection – in terms of how long you hold out. If Raza Rumi were a local reporter in Swat or Waziristan, saying what he has been saying and also doing local reporting, we would have crossed his 10th death anniversary by now. Or he would have long left for the UK or USA. Or he would have done what most people end up doing – simply shut up, change the reported subjects, change his views, change vocation. In the Indian Union, the complicity of media is sustaining abuse of power makes the powerful in media quite safe in this sense. Far from a life threat, they might even end up as parliamentarians. But for the honest and fearless reporter on the ground, things are often very different.

Chhattisgarh ranks high in the list of areas where threat to reporters is very high. ‘unknown’ people on a motorbike shot Umesh Rajput of Nai Duniya dead near his home in Raipur. He had been receiving threats to stop doing the kind of reporting he was doing. In Dantewada, Bappi Ray of Sahara Samay was harassed after he interviewed a farmer who had been assaulted by the District Collector. Naresh Mishra of Zee TV was badly beaten and Azad Saxena and Venu Gopal were kidnapped for hours together to prevent them from reporting from the village of Tadmetla. Surpiya Sharma of Times of India also faced the denial of entry. According to Reporters Without Borders, an international media freedom-watch organization, police rammed the car of Bastar Impact editor Suresh Mahapatra and several other journalists. The disturbing commonality lies in the finger pointing at the police and government security forces as being the criminals behind these crimes. A journalist is attacked to deny the people’s right to know the truth. What might be the kind of crimes that need to be hidden away from public view that the state agencies feel that it is worth the bad-press that comes from bloodying journalists?

Chhattisgarh is not the lone bad apple, though the rot there is particularly offensive. The killing of Shehla Masood, Right To Information (RTI) activist and blogger, in Bhopal created some furore, especially in light of the fact that she had been harassed by the police for sometime. On 10 February this year, officers of the Indian Reserve Battalion at the Kangla Fort beat Arindam Chaoba Sharma of Imphal Free Press ferociously. In recent times, reports of killings and grave assaults on journalists come in from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Karnataka – the list goes on. It extends even to the Andamans where the police have continuously harassed Denis Giles, the editor of Andaman Chronicle, ever since he broke the now-famous story of poachers and outsiders sexually exploiting Jarawa women.

At least eight murders of journalists have been reported in 2013. This was the year when the Indian Union slipped to an abysmal rank of 140 out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters with Borders. However smug may be the claims of the power elite in terms of freedom of expression and hence, the freedom to express freely, this rank represents its worst point. As for a reality check, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, two basket-cases in the Anglo-American worldview, do marginally better than incredible India. If this is the state of freedom of expression, a fundamental right under Article 19 of the constitution, then one should reflect very critically about what happens to this right when one drives 10 miles away from Mumbai or Delhi. If it is any consolation to a warped mind, Pakistan ranks 158 in the list. The neighbor has managed to make the power-centres unsafe too. As for India, “Criminal organizations, security forces, demonstrators and armed groups all pose a threat to India’s journalists” – the Reporters without Borders report said. In that list, the security forces are the ones that have greatest impunity. Surely the violator of liberties with the greatest impunity is the most serious threat to securing the freedom of expression of people. Raza Rumi, in a public statement, appealed to the state for protection. Where do potential victims of state agencies in India turn to?

If truths are security threats for the powers to be and security forces are engaged in curbing people’s right to know the truth, it is a sad commentary on state of the republic undergoing the world’s most elaborate exercise in representative democracy.

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Filed under Army / police, India, Media, Pakistan, Scars, Terror

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