Last week three journalists were killed in rural areas of India. You probably haven’t heard much about their deaths — or their lives — since they all worked for small local outlets, covering powerful interests who may have decided it was easier to murder them than to face their questions.
Their killers are unlikely to face justice. The issues the three journalists covered so passionately will continue to plague Indian society. And observers will mourn the slow decline of free expression in the world’s largest democracy.
Navin Nischal and Vijay Singh were run over by a car in Bihar state. Sandeep Sharma, a television journalist in Madhya Pradesh, was riding his motorcycle when he was hit by a truck. In both cases, police arrested the drivers, who turned out to be linked to critical stories written by the journalists.
The problem of violence against reporters is not limited to India, of course. On March 27, Pakistani journalist Zeeshan Ashraf Butt was shot by a local politician outside of a state office as Butt attempted to interview him. Then there’s the case of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak, who was murdered in his home with his fiancee in February, allegedly by Italian mafia members accused of fraudulent dealings with the government in Bratislava. Or the murder of investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a car bombing in Malta last November.
We can’t always be sure that journalists are being attacked for their work. Yet in all the cases mentioned above, there was good reason to believe that the the victims were being targeted precisely because they had exposed the doings of the corrupt and the criminal. (Watchdog groups that track violence against journalists say that 2017 was the worst year ever for such attacks and that 2018 looks set to be even worse.)
The motivations in each case might turn out to be unique. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that many factors of contemporary life are enabling such acts of impulsive violence. Most conspicuously, those in power are using harsh new language to attack journalism and its practitioners, thus implicitly legitimizing violence against them.
The rise in violence against journalists coincides with the advent of a U.S. president who chooses to mark members of the free press as the “enemy of the people.” He and other leaders around the world, often with the aid of armies of anonymous online proxies, have whipped up resentment against journalists, sometimes even urging their followers to take the law into their own hands.
In the case of India, it’s particularly distressing. The country has more newspaper readers — more than 400 million of them — than the United States has inhabitants. You’d think that all those readers would encourage an environment friendly to reporters. Yet 11 Indian journalists were reportedly murdered in 2017. According to observers, few of those cases have been properly investigated or prosecuted, with ominous consequences for freedom of expression.
“This is definitely a new trend. The Indian media used to be one of the most vivid in Asia, although times have always been tough for journalists working outside big metropolises,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporter Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk.
The challenges facing rural journalists, who tend to write in local languages and must cope with limited resources and minimal national exposure, are different from those faced by big-city reporters, who usually write for the English-language press. Both communities, though, have been affected. Last September, Gauri Lankesh, a prominent reporter and critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, was shot and killed in Bangalore, one of India’s biggest cities and capital of Karnataka state. Last month, police in Karnataka finally made an arrest in the killing. Predictably, the suspect was involved with right-wing, Hindu nationalist groups — the same kind of which Lankesh had been critical.
Indian journalists today face both the threat of physical violence when doing their jobs, but also the more widespread and insidious forms of intimidation — usually online — that are now commonplace around the world.
There is also the issue of access, which the current government has greatly limited. Modi famously does not hold news conferences and rarely gives interviews. When he does, he tends to prefer sympathetic news outlets.
“Modi the candidate, and later Modi the prime minister have relied heavily on social media to reach out to people directly,” says Sevanti Ninan, a columnist and founder of South Asian media watchdog The Hoot. “He does not feel the need to talk to the media. There is a sense that the press self-censors if they want access, and if they are owned by large business houses which do not want to incur the animosity of the government, they have added reason to self-censor.”
But it’s the proliferation of hate speech that is helping to foster an atmosphere of impunity that makes killing reporters seem like a viable option. Bastard, of Reporters Without Borders, says that this repeated exposure to hate speech has had an “un-inhibiting effect on those who want to get rid of overcurious journalists.”
As powerful interests around the world — both governmental and private — take an increasingly antagonistic approach to critical media, this problem will only spread. Silencing journalists — through arrests, online threats or physical violence — is an effective tool that paves the way for more-repressive agendas.
This is to be expected in places such as Russia, Iran, China and Egypt. It’s what those regimes do. But when attacks against members of the press become prevalent in societies with long democratic traditions, how long can we continue to convince ourselves that we are somehow immune?