NEW DELHI: Rajdev Rajan, the Bureau Chief of Hindustan in Siwan for eight years now, was shot dead on Friday night. A few hours before Akhilesh Pratap, working with a local Jharkhand television channel, was killed in the Maoist affected Chatra district of the state. Both were shot dead at close range. And the tragedy is that the story seems to end here with several ‘national’ newspapers not even finding space for the news on the front pages.

The assailants acted with the confidence of the killer sure of protection. In Bihar it has turned into a BJP versus government slanging match, with Rajan who is known to be a soft spoken journalist falling prey to perhaps the politics he had been exposing for years now. However, there does not seem to be a sense of urgency in the investigation, despite the rhetoric, with the murder exposing the risks that journalists run in doing their job, particularly in districts where corruption runs deep, and where the exercise of politics is violent.

India has been placed in the bottom one third of the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Sans Frontieres (Without Borders) The Index, reflects the intensity of the attacks on journalistic freedom and independence by governments, ideologies and private-sector interests during the past year according to RSF.

“The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately-owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests. Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests. Guaranteeing the public’s right to independent and reliable news and information is essential if humankind’s problems, both local and global, are to be solved” the organisation noted.

India has been battling with all these issues for a while now. The arrests of journalists working in Chhattisgarh in the Maoist hit areas has been well documented by the Editors Guild of India in a report on the harassment and threats received by scribes writing on the poverty devastated belt, and the challenges within.

The Indian media industry, as it qualifies as such, is vibrant and energetic as RSF also notes and yet subject to controls both from within and without. The targeted killings of journalists, that have largely remain unresolved, is a violent attempt to gag the press by striking fear in the unprotected mass of scribes who are reporting for various publications and channels from the districts of India. And even more so as Rajan was not some unknown stringer, but a well reputed scribe in Siwan who had been exposing the local thugs in regular coverage for Hindustan, the Hindi newspaper of the Hindustan Times group.

The media industry has expanded dramatically over the years, with big money pouring into the control of information.For instance:

- big corporate honchos have sunk millions of dollars in television networks, many of them “informally” which means money without accountability;

- political parties have all started their own television channels in the states, ignoring what should be mandatory: a scroll running at all times making it clear that the channel is owned by the particular politician, or political party;

- owners/editors use the power and influence of this media for personal benefits and for other businesses they run;

- and tragically, amidst the glitz and the big bucks, they do little to protect press freedom, the bedrock of democracy that as the RSF general secretary Christophe Deloire has observed, “It is unfortunately clear that many of the world’s leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism.”

This was evident at the Patiala House courts when journalists were openly beaten, as the police watched, by a battery of lawyers openly claiming allegiance to the ruling party. It has been evident in the inability of the journalists to get justice, and ensure that those who were responsible for assaulting them are tried under the rule of law. The scribes were working for several channels and media houses that, except maybe for a couple, took a back seat and refused to step out to defend and in the process protect them. Most of them were left to fend for themselves, with delegations meeting President Pranab Mukherjee and various government Ministers with little to no results. A protest march was the highlight of this protest, as after several years it got television and print journalists out on the streets of Delhi for a cause. But perhaps it was more notable for those who stayed away, than for those who participated.

Journalists seeking to work independently and honestly are under troll abuse and attack every minute of the day. Threats to kill, dirt and filth worded to intimidate is flung at them with impunity. The trolls claim again to be supporters of the BJP, and redirect their tweets to various senior functionaries of the ruling party and the government as well. It is dismissed as ‘ho just trolls’ but the barrage of abuse following stories where the BJP is placed at a disadvantage is not casual or incidental, but clearly part of an orchestrated, organised campaign to intimidate and harass the particular scribe. Nothing is too low for these trolls who appear in the hundreds and disappear as quickly. It is , thus, important for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as head of government of a democratic country, to distance himself and take action against those trolls who freely use his name and association to abuse.

Of course, Press freedom has been under attack since India gained freedom. Shoot the messenger has been the adage closely followed by the politicians, the mafia and those feeling the heat of independent journalism over the years. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tried to institutionalise censorship with the Emergency. Her chief ministers---Gundu Rao and Jagannath Mishra---tried to bring in legislations to curtail press freedom but without much success. Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar recalls how when asked to bend, the media crawled during the Emergency.

So what is the difference now? One that comes immediately to mind is the complete disunity amongst journalists to protect themselves as a group of professionals. Contract labour terms that replaced the regulated wage board provisions, brought in by the private owners of the big media and supported by their editors, is the main culprit. Journalists, sacked by Tv channels in the hundreds, are so terrified of losing their jobs that they give up their freedom of speech from the day they join work. So when a senior scribe is shot dead in Bihar, or another hounded out of Chhattisgarh, or a third beaten and assaulted in UP there is barely any protest.

The working journalist is not protected, and there is no independent institution in India that ensures that basic terms of employment are met, and the scribe working in difficult areas has the protection of insurance, medical benefits ,with compensation for his family in case of death.

The working journalist today works with minimal or no health benefits, no housing, no pension, and a contract that allows the employer to dismiss him with short notice and no liabilities. The owners and editors are not interested in ensuring a level playing field, either monetarily or in terms of basic amenities that employees of business houses receive but that journalists are denied. The dark joke in newsrooms of so called big media was about how the chaprasi of the company’s business concern was getting a higher salary, and more benefits than a journalist in its media outlet.

There is no security of the job, with journalists now unable to fight for their rights as there is no mechanism left for them to raise a voice against exploitation. One meets journalists with over 20 years of experience, searching for jobs, as they have been thrown out summarily not because they are inept but because they are too independent to conform. That they are in a bad economic state---as the working journalist never gets enough to save, and has no pension to look after his or her retirement--is visible in the frayed shirt collar. It is sad, that scribes one had thought would move to high positions and stay there are not given the respect that is their entitlement but are instead unceremoniously dumped by a media industry looking now for the young conformists over the experienced ‘rebel.’ Like the glamour industry, journalism is now driven by the glamour quotient and not by the experience that determines the strength of the media backbone.

Incidentally, the difference between the salaries of editors and the working journalists has grown to the point of vulgarity, where the young scribe gets not even a fraction of the salaries and perks available to the editor/owner who fall now in the league of the very rich and powerful.

So who is going to ensure justice for the journalists being killed? If not the media houses they worked for and the journalists themselves? Given the disunity, and the apathy of the employers, the deaths after the initial “oh no, thats not good” response, go into the blank space of oblivion. And the killers---and those who control the killers--- go scot free. Free also to strike again when the message from the messenger again starts to hurt.

(Photo: World Press Freedom Index Map. India is 133 in ranking.)