New Delhi, November 18, 2020 — Authorities in India’s northeastern Assam state must fully investigate the death of journalist Parag Bhuyan, determine whether it was related to his work, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Bhuyan, a journalist with Assamese-language news channel Pratidin Time, died in a hospital on November 12 after being injured in a hit-and-run incident on November 11 outside his home in the town of Kakopathar in the Tinsukia district of Assam, according to news reports. On November 12, police arrested the driver, a commercial transporter of tea leaves, and his assistant and confiscated the car, reports said.
In a statement published in a local outlet INSIDENE, the channel’s editor-in-chief Nitumoni Saikia said that he suspects that the journalist was murdered, possibly in retaliation for his reporting on corruption.
“Assam authorities must ensure a timely investigation into Parag Bhuyan’s killing, determine whether it was related to his work, and prosecute those responsible,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher. “The government of Assam should take steps to ensure safety for all journalists.”
According to Saikia’s statement, at around 8:15 p.m., a speeding vehicle hit Bhuyan outside his home, critically injuring him. Bhuyan was rushed to a local hospital before he was transferred to a larger hospital in Dibrugarh, about 60 miles east of Kakopathar, where he died, according to the statement and news reports.
Speaking to East Mojo, Tinsukia police superintendent Shiladitya Chetia said the incident appeared to be an accident, and that the driver told police he unintentionally swerved into the journalist after he saw a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.
But Bhuyan’s brother Jagadish Bhuyan, a former state minister, claimed that the journalist’s killing was related to his work, calling it a “murder of journalism,” according to reports. Jagadish Bhuyan said his brother was under threat, and that individuals also approached him to stop his brother’s investigations into cow, coal, and timber smuggling, reports said.
Mrinal Talukdar, a senior editor with Pratidin Time, told CPJ via phone that Bhuyan was reporting extensively on the timber mafia in the area around Kakopathar before his death.
In his statement, Saikia also blamed local authorities for a “lackluster” approach to the killing, noting that the hit-and-run took place near a Kakopathar police station and yet the vehicle managed to escape through the police checkpoint. He also said that police only seized the vehicle 15 hours after the incident, after an intervention from the state’s chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal. Saikia said the police behavior gave the outlet “reason to be suspicious” that the killing was a murder.
On November 12, Sonowal announced on Twitter that Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Assam police would take over the investigation from the Tinsukia local police.
CID officials travelled to Tinsukia for an initial investigation on November 13, according to Pratidin Time. “We are expecting a result from the CID investigation very soon,” Talukdar told CPJ on November 16.
Sonowal’s office did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment. CPJ could not locate contact information for Kakopathar or Tinsukia police.