Shashikant Warishe was mowed down by a vehicle driven by a criminal allegedly linked to the BJP.
Hardly anyone in India, even in Maharashtra, would have heard of a 48-year-old journalist called Shashikant Warishe. On February 6, when Warishe was filling petrol in his two-wheeler in Rajapur, he was “mowed” down, according to newspaper reports, by a vehicle driven by Pandharinath Amberkar. Warishe died the next day from the injuries he sustained.
Warishe’s story is that of many journalists, working away from the glamour and limelight of our metro cities, who diligently report on the excesses that escape the eye of mainstream media. They are the stringers, and the small-town journalists, who file stories about local politics and issues. Warishe worked at a Mumbai-based Marathi daily, Mahanagari Times, and focussed on the people’s struggles in Ratnagiri district against a major oil refinery planned there.
For many years, people in this Konkan belt have opposed the refinery that was originally to be in Nanar village of Ratnagiri district. They opposed it as they feared that pollution from the refinery would impact this largely agricultural and horticultural region, famous for its Alphonso mangoes.
The previous Shiv Sena government led by Uddhav Thackeray had responded sympathetically to those opposing the refinery by moving it from Nanar to Barsu, in the same district. But that did not end the agitation against it. People in Barsu too opposed it, supported by environmentalists, and Warishe continued to file reports reflecting these voices.
His last report, which appeared on the front page of Mahanagari Times, had images of posters showing Amberkar with Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and prime minister Narendra Modi. In the report, Warishe mentioned that Amberkar, who actively campaigned for the refinery, was accused of “serious offences”.
For his journalism, and for reporting on this local struggle against the refinery, Warishe fell afoul of those who would benefit from it being located in the region. One of those was Amberkar, a land dealer who is also a member of the local unit of the BJP.
The importance of journalists like Warishe cannot be over-emphasised at a time when the Indian media faces serious threats to its independence. It is people like him, close to the ground, who are doing what journalists are trained for: ground reporting that reflects reality, even if it is uncomfortable for those in power. This kind of reporting has virtually disappeared from our Noida-based mainstream television channels and appears only occasionally in a few national newspapers.
Struggles like the one in Nanar, and now in Barsu, are taking place across this country with local people questioning the location of polluting industries, mines, and many other infrastructure projects. Their voices are barely audible in the cacophony that dominates mainstream media. Yet, ultimately, these struggles ought to be recorded by the media for they give us a true picture of what is going on in the rest of this country beyond the metro cities.
Warishe’s murder is one more nail in the coffin of freedom of expression in this country. Just days before, on February 2, 43-year-old journalist Siddique Kappan was finally released on bail from the Lucknow District Jail after 850 days in prison. Although his release is a relief, the very fact that he was arrested and remained behind bars for so long reminds us how fraught is the right of journalists to do their jobs.
Kappan’s arrest, on October 5, 2020, by the UP police took place when he was on his way to report on the heinous gang rape, and subsequent death of a Dalit woman in Hathras. That is not a criminal act. Yet, he was arrested and put behind bars on charges ranging from money laundering to terrorism. Kappan reminds us in this interview to Scroll: “I am a journalist. Is it not my job to travel and report? Now, they are going after journalists everywhere.”
Kappan is right. This government is going after journalists who are doing what they are trained to do: report. Even if one journalist is jailed, the way Kappan was and three Kashmiri journalists (Aasif Sultan, Fahad Shad and Sajad Gul) are, India’s boast of having a free press is seriously dented.
While on the subject of press freedom, let me draw your attention to my last column in which I mentioned a provision the government was contemplating to give the Press and Information Bureau the right to declare what is “fake” or “false” news and get it taken down from digital platforms.
Interestingly, the country to which the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day parade belongs, Egypt, has very similar laws. When the government announced that Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the President of Egypt had been invited to be the chief guest, few people, including media houses, bothered to look at his record on media freedom. It would have been instructive if they had done so.
In a detailed report by the Columbia Journalism Review, titled “Sisi’s crusade: One country’s legislative assault of the press”, there is much that echoes what we are witnessing in India today.
For instance, according to this report, “On the one hand, there is the appearance of legitimacy, in that spreading false statements is now banned by a constitutional amendment cloaked in democratic language about the need to preserve the country’s ‘national fabric’ and root out ‘discrimination, sectarianism, racism.’ On the other hand, the assault on independent journalism has become furiously brazen. As leaders around the world take aim at ‘fake news,’ Egypt’s efforts may be the most brutal, and the most foreboding.” Sounds familiar?
An Egyptian journalist is quoted as saying that journalists in his country are left now with only one option: “When Sisi talks about something, anything, all media organisations are required to cover Sisi’s ‘brilliance’...The only things that get published are those that the Egyptian government decides on, or the security services. Meaning, I can’t criticise a minister, or disagree with their policies. I can’t say that anyone is oppressed or suffering. I can only say that the ministers are right, that everything they’re doing is right, that Sisi is right, the security forces are right.”
Again, sounds rather familiar even if we can claim not to have gone as far as Egypt in suppression of free expression.
The only consolation, if we can even call it that, is that the Indian government is not alone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “imprisoning journalists is just one measure of how authoritarian leaders try to strangle press freedom. Around the world, governments are also honing tactics like ‘fake news’ laws, are using criminal defamation and vaguely worded legislation to criminalise journalism, are ignoring the rule of law and abusing the judicial system, and are exploiting technology to spy on reporters and their families.”
At a time when political parties are getting into election mode, the fetters on journalists and independent media are unlikely to feature in any election campaign because no political party is vested in ensuring that the media is really free. More reason then that those of us, even if we are a minority, who believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental right, continue to write and speak out for that right.
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