Assault, police harassment, even death: The lonely fight for press freedom in small-town India

Media organisations often don’t stand by these journalists too, leaving them vulnerable.

WrittenBy:Shweta Desai
From left to right: Rupesh Kumar Singh, Shashikant Warishe and Kanishk Tiwari.

When Shashikant Warishe received threats over his reporting, it didn’t frighten him.

“Such warnings excited him to write even more challenging reports,” recalled his friend and activist Mangesh Chavan. “It gave him a kick.”

Warishe, 48, had been a journalist for over two decades, recognised for his bold and relentless reportage that challenged the government’s big ticket development projects in Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra. His writing in local news dailies served as a prominent voice of the fear and resistance of local villagers against the French-built nuclear power plant in Jaitapur and Saudi Aramco’s Barsu refinery. Both were slated to be the world’s largest upon their completion.

Villagers feared the impending development would pollute the verdant Konkan region – famous for its golden-hued Alphonso mangoes, cashews and jackfruit – and put the ecologically sensitive landscape at further risk. According to activists, the proposed sites of the projects in Ratnagiri fall in the seismic IV zone and are at risk of high casualties in the event of an earthquake.

Many local journalists and news outlets were quick to align in favour of the mega-projects, believing they would boost employment and infrastructure in the agrarian region. Chavan, who was involved in protests against the project, recalled the struggle to get recognition during the early days of the Jaitapur protest movement in 2008. 

But Warishe, Chavan said, was in the opposing camp, highlighting the hazards emanating from development leading to illegal land grabs, environmental risks, and a politics-business nexus.

He went the extra mile in his reporting and his articles had depth that other local news journals lacked, said Chavan. “He would write fearlessly against the politicians, criminal gangs and local mafias,” said Chavan. “No one was spared. It was hard to predict whose trumpet he would blow open next.” 

Warishe soon became the target of threats from mafias, criminal elements and even political henchmen to stop publishing news against their interests. But this only drove him further to double down on his reporting, Chavan said. “He was aware of the risks his journalism posed and he never stopped.”

On February 6, hours after he published one such sensational front-page report in Mahanagari Times, Warishe was allegedly mowed down close to the highway in Rajapur by the local land dealer and a supporter of the proposed Barsu refinery, Pandharinath Amberkar, who was his story’s subject. The police charge sheet held that Amberkar was angered by the report that branded him a criminal with well-established connections with top BJP leaders, and rammed his SUV into Warishe’s two-wheeler. His bleeding body was dragged 100 metres.

Warishe died on February 7. Amberkar, who fled after the accident, was arrested on the same day, on charges of culpable homicide and murder. He was denied bail in June.

No safeguards in small towns 

The murder in broad daylight sent shockwaves across the Konkan region, where attacks against journalists have been almost non-existent. In 2017, Maharashtra became the first state in India to introduce a law to protect journalists, making attacks against media institutions and journalists a punishable offence. But its implementation has been futile, as evident through Warishe’s killing. In the 36 cases filed under the act, there have been no convictions so far. Many law enforcers are unaware about its existence.

Warishe’s murder was yet another damning indicator of the lack of safety of journalists and the sharp decline in press freedom in India that has become a hallmark of the state of media affairs in the country. Across smaller towns and rural areas, journalists who challenge the system fight an uphill battle to do their jobs, often at great risk to their lives. 

Data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international nonprofit, shows that between 2010 and 2023, 47 journalists and media workers were killed in India. The data also ranks India high on the global impunity index as not a single journalist’s murder had been solved over the past decade.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has, in several reports, deemed India as “one of the world’s most dangerous countries”, with an average of “three to four journalists being killed in connection with their work every year”.

Over 90 percent of the deaths listed by CPJ were in the form of murder and took place in small towns and rural areas. The risk to a journalist’s life is particularly grave in interior and remote areas, said S Arulchelvan, professor of media studies at Anna University, Chennai.

“Journalism in small towns is difficult and riddled with insecurity. Reports from there are not a priority for national news organisations which increasingly treat news as a commercial business and not a service to society,” he said, adding that it’s easier to single out journalists in mofussil areas who are writing against the power and harm them physically, as everyone knows everyone.

Outside the national capital and major cities, journalists’ interests are rarely safeguarded. Many major news organisations hire journalists on a part-time basis, enrolling freelancers or depending on stringers for ground reports. Their payment ranges from paltry sums per new item or low monthly salaries, forcing them to pursue other revenue streams or sponsored news. They work without organisational support, often even without press cards

“This opens the doors to threats and restrictions on media freedom from politicians, police, local strongmen and criminal elements who can try and influence or silence unfavourable news coverage,” said Arulchelvan. “It’s not just the government and politicians who post a harm to press freedom. Media organisations are also guilty of failing to stand by their journalists.”

In jail for over a year 

The decline in press freedom comes amid an escalating crackdown on dissent, and routine targeting of journalists with prosecution for negative stories against the government, political parties, and their business interests. 

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the intimidation of the press is particularly concerning in India’s prevailing political climate. “The media, it appears, is only expected to be cheerleaders instead of doing their job, which is to expose rights abuses, so that the authorities can alter policy and ensure both accountability and remedy.”

Human Rights Watch has called on the authorities to stop harassment of journalists for reporting or criticising the government. “Misusing the law to punish the messenger on severe charges, including under draconian counterterrorism laws, is a failure of rights respecting governance,” Ganguly added. 

Jharkhand-based independent journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh has been in jail since last July in a 2019 case on multiple charges, from allegedly carrying out Maoist operations against the state to the funding of the Maoist movements. 

Singh’s reports from deep forest areas and remote villages of Jharkhand have appeared in several Hindi digital media outlets, including Janchowk, Janjawar, Bhadas4media and The Wire Hindi. Among other issues, he reported on Adivasi communities fighting for jal-jungle-zameen and being subjected to state violence. It was this reportage that “pinched the authorities”, according to Singh’s wife Ipsa Shatakshi. 

Jharkhand is a state on the frontlines of a resources war, where deforestation, militarisation and corporatisation go hand in hand with their opposition from indigenous communities. Days before his arrest, Singh had interviewed 11-year-old Khushboo Mahato from Kalhamanjho village in Giridih district. She developed a bulging face tumour, allegedly due to toxic pollution from an iron and sponge factory. The news report profiled several villagers who complained that unplanned industrialisation was leading to sickness and slow death.  

But it was his June 2017 story, on a fake encounter of Motilal Baske, an innocent Adivasi man paraded as a Maoist leader that implicated Singh. His breaking investigation on the Jharkhand police’s claim of eliminating a wanted Maoist leader created a furore and was picked up by several national and English media press. 

Shatakshi said the authorities have haunted her husband since the publication of this report. He was first arrested in 2019 and then released on bail as the chargesheet wasn’t filed within six months. He was rearrested in July 2022.

Singh was also secretly under surveillance by the Indian government. His phone, along with Shatakshi and her younger sister, was among the 40 Indian numbers to appear in the Pegasus snooping list. 

Media orgs turn against them too 

Prosecution and defamation cases have been a tool of choice for past and present governments to muffle the voice and threaten journalists. When they are entangled in such cases, the first obscure casualty is their jobs. Instead of standing up for them and safeguarding their interests, news organisations and publications are often found giving up on them.

After Singh’s arrest, national and international media groups issued statements condemning his detention. But, his wife said, the media houses that Singh contributed to did not come forward to secure his release or offer legal help. Shatakshi also lost her job as a teacher in a private school. 

This pattern is seen in other cases too. In June, Bhaskar terminated a stringer after BJP minister Smriti Irani threatened another stringer in Amethi. Last year, journalist Kanishk Tiwari lost his three-year-old job with News Nation after he was stripped and assaulted by the police in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi while covering a protest. 

News Nation declined to comment for this report. 

“I was labelled a fake journalist but I was officially working with the news organisation and also had district-level accreditation,” Tiwari told this reporter. Viral photos of his arrest had led to widespread humiliation and ridicule, he said, and news organisations refused to work with a “controversial” and “chaddi kand patrakar” journalist.

Tiwari believes his arrest and treatment was “retribution” for his coverage of the local BJP MLA in Sidhi. He said he had routinely questioned the MLA, and the trigger had been his investigation into the MLA’s link to an illegal marijuana trade. 

“There is no challenge in being a sycophant,” said Tiwari. “Those who suck up to powerful people face no problems. But those who challenge them are targeted. They wanted me to stop journalism and one way to do so was to humiliate me publicly, so that I wouldn’t dare step out in public.”

For several weeks, a mortified Tiwari stayed at home, agonising over the incident. The lack of support from news organisations left his mental state in disrepair. Eventually, he gathered courage and launched bilingual MP Sandesh News 24 in the local Bagheli and Hindi languages, and also started a weekly newspaper Untold Sandesh.

But a year later, Tiwari is still scared for his life. He has relocated his family and left Sidhi for Rewa. Yet he stayed on in journalism because he is passionate about his profession, he says.

“Journalism doesn’t pay. I would get Rs 250-300 per news,” he said. “But to get the Rs 300, I had to spend Rs 1,000 in travel and other expenses.”

Meanwhile, Shatakshi is raising her six-year-old alone while fighting to release Singh from prison. She struggles with limited resources. 

“It has been extremely difficult for the family,” she said. “But the hardest is for our child who keeps asking when his father will return.”

The arrest has not broken the couple’s spirit or their resolve towards journalism. Instead, it has spurred them to continue fighting the good fight for justice and human rights. Both Singh in prison and Shatakshi outside have enrolled for masters in journalism and are determined to write.

“This period of tribulation is a small price we have to pay,” she said. “But if it can bring in any real change in Jharkhand, it will be worth it.”

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