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The Dangers of Being a Regional Journalist in India

On Jun. 1, 2015. Jagendra Singh, a journalist from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was set on fire by some local policemen and henchmen allegedly under the directions of one of the state’s ministers, Ramamurti Singh Verma. He died on Jun. 8, 2015 from burn injuries. Singh wrote on local politics and current affairs in Hindi-language newspapers and on his Facebook page, which had more than 4,000 followers. Singh often wrote critically about Verma, alleging that he was involved in illegal mining and land grabs. Just preceding the attack, he wrote a post on his Facebook alleging that Verma was involved in the gang rape of a local woman which spread like wildfire, catching the attention of mainstream media publications.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 43 journalists have been killed in India since 1992. India which considers itself as the pioneer of free speech and democracy in Asia, ranks only one notch above Pakistan and below strife-torn Palestine, in the world press freedom rankings released this April by Reporters Without Borders. A New York-based watchdog recently reported that it could find only one case in 10 years in India in which a suspect was prosecuted and convicted for killing a journalist, but that suspect was later released on appeal.

While India’s democratic institutions and judiciary remain strong and independent, the fourth estate of Indian democracy is finding itself more marginalised and vulnerable than ever before.

Ever since the Right-wing Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party won a landslide victory in the 2014 General Elections, it’s become unsafe for the media to voice anti-establishment opinions. With right-wing nationalists trying to suppress all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the political landscape, self-censorship in media is on the rise. On a social level, Left-Liberalism survives in closed room familial discussions and subtle diplomatic dissents as those who dared to speak up are becoming targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.

Late Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of Gauri Lankesh Patrika

Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of a Kannada language weekly tabloid was shot outside her home in Bangalore as she returned home from work on Sept. 5, 2017 by three unidentified assailants.

This again reignited the issue of how established English journalists based in metropolitan cities are comparatively more secure than regional journalists like Lankesh who find themselves facing an additional layer of risk due to the absence of affiliation to any mighty media powerhouses. While English speaking left-liberals have been in the center of the whole fiasco, what scares the right-winger is the progressive thinkers who can effectively communicate in his/her own native language. While the ones using english as a medium can be criticised for their apparent disconnect with the ‘real’ India, the ones propagating in Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam etc. are often perceived as dangerous as their targets are precise and their appeal is simple and accessible and thats exactly what fascist forces are fearful of — the ability to form direct communication lines with the constituents. Thus its no coincidence that a plethora of journalists who were killed, were at the time investigating either matters of corruption or politics.

By bridging the language gap, regional journalists’ ideas have reached far and wide, seeping into the villages and the hamlets, thus countering the blind faith fostered and flamed by communal forces.

In a country where there are 22 major languages which are written in 13 different scripts, with over 720 dialects, the medium of communication indeed plays a vital role in determining the expanse of audience the story is bound to gather. While English publications and TV channels are primarily catering to the elite and the educated who find haven in the country’s big town and cities, it is people like Jagendra Singh who have the ability to preserve and disrupt status quo in the diverse nation where 69% of the total population resides in the rural areas. By bridging the language gap, regional journalists’ ideas have reached far and wide, seeping into the villages and the hamlets, thus countering the blind faith fostered and flamed by communal forces. But enough isn’t being done to protect these true trailblazers of free speech and expression. In (Narendra) Modi’s India where future is being curated by the mob on the ideals of blind faith and extremism, the nation has to ensure the survival of this minuscule class of vernacular pressman as they currently wield the sole viable form of opposition to the establishment with the present sabbatical of political resistance both on centre and state level.

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