INDIAN JOURNALISTS ARE JUSTIFIABLY PROUD OF THEIR FREEDOM, which remained largely intact last year despite ongoing sectarian and political violence, and a general climate of intolerance that has worsened under the leadership of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Journalists in India’s urban centers, especially those who work for the powerful English-language national dailies, tend to be insulated from threats of violence and intimidation. Members of this elite are apt to identify the most worrisome threats to the press in similar terms as their American counterparts, warning that news is increasingly driven more by corporate concerns than by the values of public service.
Shortly after the 25th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s infamous declaration of a state of emergency-during which the press was censored as part of a broad political crackdown-the national English-language daily The Hindu published an editorial lamenting the changed character of the media: “The press has discovered new passions: business, food, fashion, beauty pageants, leisure…. It finds upwardly mobile India sexy and rural India a bore. It celebrates information technology because that is sexy too…. Who needs censorship?” Although this trend is particularly evident in the English-language media, sections of the vernacular press are moving in the same direction.
When Pradeep Bhatia, a photographer for the national daily The Hindustan Times, was killed in Srinagar by an August 10 bomb for which the militant Kashmiri separatist group Hezb-ul Mujahedeen claimed credit, some press analysts feared a return to the days when journalists in Kashmir were routinely targeted for their work. Including Bhatia, nine journalists have been killed in Kashmir since 1989, when simmering unrest in Muslim majority areas of the Himalayan territory began to escalate toward civil war. However, Hezb-ul Mujahedeen spokesman Salim Hashmi claimed the attack was aimed at Indian security forces and expressed regret over Bhatia’s death and the many journalists injured.
Physical assaults against journalists in Kashmir were in fact down from years past, although the local press continued to face pressure from militant groups attempting to influence coverage. The state-owned broadcast media, generally seen as mouthpieces for the central government, remained an especially popular target. Militants fired three rifle-propelled grenades at the national Doordarshan television network affiliate in Srinagar on March 18, and exploded a bomb outside the compound of Radio Kashmir on April 15. No one was hurt in either incident.
Violence in the country’s Northeastern States, particularly in Assam and Manipur, also continued to take its toll on journalists. Competing separatist militants are active throughout the region, home to numerous ethnic minorities, and state investigative agencies tend to blame any disorder on rebel forces without further investigation. In the past two years, two journalists have been assassinated in Manipur, but neither case has been prosecuted by the authorities.
In addition to the threat of physical harm, journalists covering civil conflicts in India have been vulnerable to national security laws. This problem may intensify in 2001 if the parliament approves the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2000, which includes a section that would compel journalists to tell authorities what they know of terrorist activities or face possible jail terms. Like its predecessor, the notorious Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, known as TADA, the proposed bill would dispense with constitutional guarantees for due process, allowing for preventive detention.
Before it was finally revoked in 1995, TADA was frequently used to intimidate and arbitrarily detain journalists who maintained contacts with militant groups in the course of their professional work. In response to press complaints about the new bill’s impact on journalists, the Home Ministry argued that the law did not treat them any differently than other citizens.
Other laws designed to curb civil unrest have been applied to censor the press. In February, customs agents at the Calcutta airport blocked distribution of the U.S. news magazine Time because it contained an interview with Gopal Godse, the brother of Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. The assistant commissioner of customs claimed the article was “defamatory and derogatory to the Father of the Nation” and that it contained “statements which can create communal disharmony.”
In practice, the charge that a given piece of news could provoke ethnic or sectarian conflict tends to be invoked at the whim of officials and politicians, rather than to protect the public from imminent harm. The belated prosecution of Bal Thackeray, leader of the right-wing Hindu organization Shiv Sena, for his role in inciting attacks against Muslims during the 1993 communal riots in Bombay, is a case in point. Evidence against Thackeray, a former cartoonist who has billed himself as the “Hitler of Bombay,” included a series of front-page editorials in the Shiv Sena paper Saamna, labeling Muslims as “anti-nationals,” calling for a holy war, and exhorting Thackeray’s followers to “crush the traitors.”
On July 14, more than seven years after the riots, the state government of Maharashtra announced that it would prosecute Thackeray for “the promotion of enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion.” However, the prosecution effort was clouded by partisan politics, since the state government is led by the opposition Congress Party while the Shiv Sena is closely aligned with the ruling BJP. The case was pending before the Bombay High Court at year’s end.
Customs agents at the Calcutta airport blocked distribution of the February 21 edition of the U.S. news magazine Time. The issue contained a one-page interview with Gopal Godse, the brother of Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse.
In a February 17 letter to Time‘s Indian distributor, Assistant Commissioner of Customs Bholanath Dasgupta explained that the shipment was stopped “in order to prevent the dissemination of documents containing…[material] which is derogatory to national prestige,” and stipulated that the magazines would be released only after “blackening the page containing the interview on Mahatma Gandhi appearing on page 17.”
The letter specified two grounds for censorship of the article: “(1) It is defamatory and derogatory to the Father of the Nation, and (2) It contains statements which can create communal disharmony.”
Time‘s circulation in northeast India was disrupted by the move. Subscribers’ copies were delivered five days late, and vendors received their shipments several days behind schedule. The Godse interview, meanwhile, had been available on Time‘s Web site since February 14, and was widely circulated.
Calcutta customs commissioner Sumit Dutta Majumdar ordered the censorship action, citing his authority under Section 11 of the Customs Act. This was the second time that Majumdar had censored Time magazine. An article on a dispute affecting tiger conservation efforts-published in the magazine’s September 20, 1999 edition-was also blacked out under his direction.
According to a message received by CPJ on February 24 from a source in New Delhi, “Starting this week, senior airport customs officials all over India have been ordered by their higher-ups to check the magazine thoroughly for any objectionable stories.”
On February 24, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, urging him to order an immediate inquiry to determine whether there was in fact a systematic effort under way to censor Time, and to inform those responsible that his administration would not condone such actions.
Islamic militants fired three rifle-propelled grenades at the Indian state television network Doordarshan’s broadcast station in Srinagar, Kashmir. No one was injured.
The Pakistan-based Hezb-ul Mujahedeen claimed responsibility for the attack on Doordarshan, which is widely seen as a mouthpiece for the Indian government and is frequently targeted by separatist groups.
Adhir Rai, free-lancer
KILLED (MOTIVE UNCONFIRMED)
Rai was assassinated while on a journalistic assignment, according to a brief report published in the English-language newspaper The Hindu. In addition to serving as the president of the Deoghar Working Journalists Union, Rai was also a lecturer at a local college, according to the paper.
Nongthonbam Biren, Naharolgi Thoudang
Police arrested Biren, editor of the Manipuri-language daily Naharolgi Thoudang, for publishing the text of a speech delivered by a local human rights activist, Thounaojam Iboyaima. Both Biren and Iboyaima were arrested on April 14 in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern state of Manipur, and detained overnight. On April 15, they appeared before Judge Gomati Devi, chief justice of Imphal West District, and were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, as well as sections 121, 121-A, and 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. Section 124-A says, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written…attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government” may be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Iboyaima’s April 9 speech cited United Nations declarations to support the argument that “armed rebellion may be a last resort against colonial oppression,” according to a report circulated by the Imphal-based Centre for Organisation, Research, and Education.
A number of insurgent groups operate in Manipur and are fighting against Indian rule. Judge Devi said Iboyaima’s speech, “according to the prosecution, gave some sort of encouragement to…underground, unlawful organizations.”
Biren and Iboyaima were remanded to judicial custody at Sajiwa Jail in Imphal. Their trial was scheduled for April 29. In an April 20 letter to Manipur chief minister Wahengbam Nipamacha Singh, CPJ argued that no journalist should be jailed for his or her work, and urged the prompt and unconditional release of Biren and Iboyaima.
On May 5, a sessions court judge dismissed the charges against both men and ordered their release. According to a report published by the Calcutta-based newspaper The Statesman, “the judge said there was no evidence in the newspaper report to suggest that there was ‘criminal intention to incite the public.'”
Parag Saikia, Aji
Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, Aji
Saikia, a reporter for the Assamese daily Aji, was summoned to the office of the deputy commissioner in Sibsagar, Assam. He arrived at the office along with a fellow reporter, Annamuddin Ahmed of the daily Asomiya Protidin. Ahmed was told to wait outside.
Deputy Commissioner Lakhinath Tamuly then interrogated Saikia about the source of a story in the previous day’s paper that implicated him in a local bank fraud case. When Saikia said he could not reveal his source, Tamuly physically assaulted him. Tamuly kicked the journalist in the stomach and punched him several times in the face, according to CPJ sources. Others present in the office joined in the beatings, including the deputy commissioner for revenue, Puspa Bhuyan, as well as several of Tamuly’s bodyguards. Hearing Saikia’s screams, Ahmed entered the room and managed to rescue his friend with the help of several other people.
During the attack, the deputy commissioner allegedly threatened to shoot Saikia if he continued to write such stories, and added that this incident should serve as a warning to Bhuyan, Aji‘s editor. Bhuyan had received two threatening written messages in recent months, which he said were sent by local officials angered by the paper’s political coverage.
V. Selvaraj, Nakkeeran
KILLED (MOTIVE UNCONFIRMED)
Selvaraj, a reporter for the Tamil-language biweekly Nakkeeran, was murdered in his hometown of Perambalur, Tamil Nadu, by a gang of about a dozen men who attacked him with knives and sickles.
At around 10:20 p.m., the group approached Selvaraj near the bus station in Perambalur and hacked him to death. He died instantly from more than 20 serious lacerations all over his body, according to sources at Nakkeeran, a well-respected news magazine known for its investigative reports, which have often exposed cases of government corruption.
Nakkeeran editor R. Gopal suspected that Selvaraj may have been murdered for writing about official malfeasance in the nearby town of Tiruchi, where the journalist was based. Other local journalists thought the murder was the result of a personal quarrel.
The Crime Branch Central Investigation Department, the state’s top-level investigative agency, was handling the investigation, but had not reported any significant progress at year’s end.
Pradeep Bhatia, The Hindustan Times
Bhatia, a photographer for the Indian newspaper The Hindustan Times, was one of at least twelve people killed in a bomb attack in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar. The militant group Hezb-ul Mujahedeen issued a statement from its base in Islamabad claiming responsibility for the attack. Hezb-ul Mujahedeen spokesman Salim Hashmi was quoted in the August 11 edition of The Hindustan Times as saying, “We are deeply grieved over the death of a press photographer and injuries to some journalists.” Although Hashmi claimed the attack had been targeted against Indian security forces, the choreography of the bombing seemed certain to endanger journalists.
Shortly after noon on Thursday, August 10, a grenade was thrown toward the entrance of the State Bank of India near Residency Road in central Srinagar. The initial blast lured journalists and security forces to the area, and was followed about 15 minutes later by the detonation of a powerful car bomb within a few feet of the crowd.
Among the journalists badly injured in the bombing were Irfan Manzoor, a Zee TV cameraman; Habibullah Naqash, a photographer for the newspaper Asian Age; Tariq Ahmed Dar, a photographer for the Srinagar News; Bilal Ahmed Butt, a cameraman for Asia News International; and Muhammad Amin War, a free-lance photographer and stringer for the Chandigarh-based newspaper The Tribune.
Including Pradeep Bhatia, nine journalists have been killed in Kashmir since 1989, when the long-running conflict became a full-scale civil war.
In an August 11 letter to Syed Salahuddin, supreme commander of the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, CPJ condemned the group’s indiscriminate bombing campaign, which endangered journalists and other civilians.
Thounaojam Brajamani Singh, Manipur News
KILLED (MOTIVE UNCONFIRMED)
Brajamani, editor of the English-language daily Manipur News, was assassinated in Imphal, the capital of Manipur State.
At around 10:20 p.m. on August 20, Brajamani was traveling home by scooter, when two men, also riding a scooter, forced him to stop on Meino Leirak road, in the Sagolband area of Imphal. The editor was accompanied by Henry Salam, a computer operator, whom the assassins told to stand back and look away. Brajamani was then shot twice in the back of the head at point-blank range, according to CPJ sources in Manipur.
On August 15, just days before the murder, an anonymous caller had threatened the editor’s daughter over the phone, warning her to prepare for her father’s funeral. On August 17, Brajamani published a brief news item about the threat in his paper. The next day, he published an editorial inviting the caller to contact him again so that any “conflicts of mind…may be negotiated,” according to a report by the Press Trust of India news agency.
Brajamani was known as the “pioneer of English journalism in Manipur,” one local journalist told Agence France-Presse. He was also an activist who helped found the Journalists Front Manipur, an organization whose purpose was to unite the often fractious community of local journalists.
In an August 21 letter to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, CPJ urged a prompt and thorough investigation of the murder, whose motive remained unclear at year’s end.
Armed militants in Imphal, Manipur State, bombed an office building that housed two publications controlled by a rival militant group, according to local sources.
At around 11:45 a.m., two armed men entered the building of the Pan Manipur Youth League, which published the monthly magazine Chingkei Hunba and was preparing to launch a daily newspaper called Lamyanba (formerly a popular monthly news magazine). According to local news reports, one of the gunmen then proceeded to a conference room where a training workshop was being held for prospective Lamyanba employees.
The gunman ordered 11 trainee journalists and about 40 other League employees to vacate the building. A powerful bomb exploded shortly after the rebels left the premises.
The blast destroyed the facade of the building and damaged two vehicles parked outside. There were no casualties, according to the Press Trust of India.
The militant group Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup-Oken Faction (KYKL-O) claimed responsibility for the attack in an August 27 press conference held at their camp in Chandel District, which borders Burma. The KYKL-O spokesman said the bombing had been carried out because of the Youth League’s alleged links to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), a rival rebel group.
Local journalists suggested that the KYKL-O was attempting to prevent the relaunch of Lamyanba.
Officers from the Manipur police, Assam Rifles, and the Central Reserve Police Force reportedly rushed to the scene of the bombing, but CPJ sources feared the investigation would be dropped after the KYKL-O claimed responsibility. Attacks perpetrated by the militant groups are considered “beyond the scope of any investigation,” said one local journalist, and are almost never prosecuted.
On August 28, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vaypayee, urging him to order a federal investigation into the bombing of the Lamyanba office.