The countries of South Asia, stretching from Afghanistan to the Burmese border, have enjoyed a large measure of press freedom, with relatively few long interruptions, since the days of British colonialism. Recently, however, reports of episodes of violence and intimidation of journalists have been emerging across the region, where India is the dominant power.
Recently, the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, published a special report, “Dangerous Pursuit: In India, Journalists Who Cover Corruption May Pay With Their Lives,” which studied three prominent cases of journalists’ deaths between 2011 and 2015: one burned to death, who accused police officers before he died of setting him on fire; one shot; and one who died mysteriously during an interview for a report he was preparing.
These three are among 27 journalists who have been killed since 1992 in India “with complete impunity” and no prosecutions, the organization said in its report. “This has created a challenging environment for the press, especially small-town journalists and those reporting on corruption, who are often more vulnerable to attack and whose legitimacy is questioned when they are threatened or killed,” Sumit Galhotra, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Asia program senior research associate, wrote in introducing the report he prepared with a co-author, Raksha Kumar, a freelance journalist in India. “An overwhelmed justice system and lack of media solidarity add to the problems facing India’s press.”
In a foreword to the report, P. Sainath, an Indian journalist who has accumulated numerous international awards for his writing on poverty, underdevelopment and corrupt misuse of resources in rural India — and the author of the classic exposé, “Everybody Loves a Good Drought” — emphasized that rural and small-town journalists writing in local languages suffer the greatest risk.
“In the three case studies this report focuses on — and in CPJ’s list of 27 journalists who have been murdered in India in direct retaliation for their work since 1992 — it is hard to find a single English language reporter from a big city,” Sainath wrote. “That is, one who was working for an English outlet of a large corporate media house.”
Adding to the pressures and threats to journalists everywhere in India, according to Soutik Biswas, a columnist and correspondent in India for the BBC, is the widespread use of a colonial-era sedition law being used now by Hindu nationalists.
“In India, you can be charged with sedition for liking a Facebook post, criticizing a yoga guru, cheering a rival cricket team, drawing cartoons, asking a provocative question in a university exam, or not standing up in a cinema when the national anthem is being played,” he wrote in a recent column for the BBC. Even entertainers are not exempt, he said, recalling a recent sedition case brought against an actress for saying nice things about Pakistan.
In Nepal, a former Himalayan kingdom never colonized but consumed in recent decades by political turbulence, a leading publication in the South Asian region, Himal Southasian, announced on Aug. 24 that it would cease publication in November “due to non-cooperation by regulatory state agencies in Nepal.” The trust that owns the magazine blamed, in part, the “socio-political chaos” that had steadily weakened the commitment of the political class to an open society.
“Reflecting the trend in other parts of Southasia, in terms of independent media and civil society organizations,” the owners wrote, Himal is being silenced not by direct attack or overt censorship but the use of the arms of bureaucracy to paralyze its functioning.”
In the Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, scattered across many islands, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported on Sept. 9 that a team of a half-dozen police officers had raided the offices of the daily newspaper Maldives Independent two days earlier because of comments a former editor of the paper made in an Al Jazeera documentary, alleging that there was corruption in high places in Maldives. The editor, who is apparently outside the country, may face defamation charges, media reports say. The current editor has fled the Maldives for fear of prosecution because she was interviewed in the documentary, titled, “Stealing Paradise.”
In Bangladesh, the Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the government to stop using spurious criminal charges to “harass and stifle” online media. The organization also drew attention to new cybersecurity legislation that, if passed, would impose severe penalties, including life in prison, for material posted online that was deemed antistate. Bangladeshi bloggers have been arrested; four have been killed.
Pakistani journalists have faced many dangers in Pakistan, caught between a powerful government intelligence service and militant groups, especially in the tribal areas on the northwest frontier with Afghanistan. In early August, two journalists died in an explosion in Quetta, to the south, bringing to 60 the number killed since 1992, when the Committee to Protect Journalists began keeping records.
The next endangered journalists likely to come into focus in South Asia are Kashmiris living in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, which is still regarded by the United Nations as a disputed region, claimed by both Pakistan and India. In recent weeks, a renewed rebellion has been growing among Muslim Kashmiris against Indian rule, particularly with a Hindu-nationalist government in power in Delhi. Journalists feel they are threatened as Indian security forces step up attacks on protestors and critics.
Yusuf Jameel, a veteran journalist based in the Kashmiri summer capital of Srinagar, which is predominantly Muslim, has reported on earlier outbreaks of rebellion and government responses that have left tens of thousands dead since the late 1980s. He is now chronicling the current violence on his Facebook page. Jameel won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 1996.
On Sept 13, speaking in Geneva at the opening of a session of the UN Human Right Council, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, requested that India open Kashmir to an international team of monitors, where more than 80 people have died in recent weeks of demonstrations. India, as it always does, slammed the council and said that no outsiders were welcome or needed because the Indian government was restoring order, Indian media reports said.
Pakistan had agreed to allow monitors to visit its side of the disputed borders of Kashmir, where one of the oldest UN peacekeeping monitoring missions has been stationed for more than 60 years, severely restricted by India.
“Indian democracy has all that is required to address legitimate grievances,” an Indian government statement said.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.