Reporter’s death in MP raises questions about safety of journalists in India

Sandeep Sharma had been working against the sand mafia flourishing in the state.

 |  4-minute read |   26-03-2018
  • ---
    Total Shares

A journalist was run over by a dumper in Madhya Pradesh's Bhind district on Monday. The scribe, 35-year-old Sandeep Sharma, had been reporting on illegal sand mining in the area and had recently filed a complaint citing a threat to his life, after he conducted a “sting operation” against a police officer. The video, aired on the news channel Sharma worked with, showed the policeman “hand in glove” with the sand mafia.    

The Times of India quoted Bhind’s press club president Sathyanarayan Sharma as saying that Sandeep’s death was highly suspicious: “He was a brave journalist and had filed stories against mining mafias. He was facing threat from a police officer whom he had exposed a few months ago and had submitted a complaint to the SP citing threat to his life. Fact that the dumper was empty also gives rise to suspicion,” the president said. Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has ordered a probe into the incident. 

While the police will probe Sandeep Sharma’s death, it brings under spotlight two key issues – the illegal sand mining flourishing in Madhya Pradesh, and the vulnerability of journalists in the country.

Sand mining in Madhya Pradesh  

Unauthorised mining is rampant in Madhya Pradesh – between 2013-14 and 2016-17, cases of illegal mining of major minerals went up by 106.4 per cent, according to data released by the ministry of mines.

The Opposition, too, has been taking the government to task over the issue of sand mining, with Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Ajay Singh, alleging that the ruling BJP’s leaders were giving protection to the sand mafia, and that even chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s relatives were involved in it. 

With sand perennially in demand due to the ever-expanding construction sector, unauthorised mining in the state’s rivers is common, and allegations have long been made that the practice has flourished because of collusion — from local officials to higher-ups in the government, everyone is a stakeholder in the offence.

As an earlier DailyO article notes: “Reports of what are called the sand mafia thrashing government officials are routine. Even during the so-called “ban months”, (brief ban by government), sand was being mined using machines all along the Narmada in full public view.”

The practice causes losses in revenue to the government, but even more worrying is its impact on the environment. It destroys a river’s ecology, forces rivers to change course and causes depletion of groundwater.

In November 2017, the government came up with a new way to regulate the sector, allowing anyone to mine sand by availing an online permission form and showing it to village sarpanches. However, allegations of lack of political will in controlling the menace persist.

Journalists at risk

It has not yet been proven if Sandeep Sharma was indeed killed by the sand mafia. However, the case brings back memories of a 2015 incident, in which a 40-year-old journalist in Madhya Pradesh was set ablaze by three people involved in illegal mining.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 142 attacks against journalists for “grievous hurt” were registered nationwide from 2015 to 2017. 

According to a 2015 report, India was among the three most dangerous countries for media personnel. According to the not-for-profit Committee to Protect Journalists, the death rate of journalists in India was lower only to war-torn Iraq and Syria. Most of the victims were working in smaller towns, and had been exposing corruption by local politicians and strongmen.

A 2016 report by the same body says that India features “in the list of 13 high-impunity countries, where an overwhelmingly large proportion of such murders have remained unsolved”. A 2017 report by Reporters Without Borders places India on the 136th position on a list of 180 countries in on a “press freedom index”.

Another high-risk group is that of RTI activists, with 69 killed and hundreds attacked since the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005, according to a report published in The Indian Express by Christophe Jaffrelott and Basim U Nissa. The report states that many of these activists were journalists.

India lacks adequate legal protection for journalists, with Maharashtra being the only state in the country with a dedicated law to protect scribes. The Maharashtra Media Persons and Media Institutions (Prevention of Violence and Damage or Loss to Property) Act, 2017,  states that all attacks on "mediapersons and media houses in the state would be treated as “cognisable and non-bailable” offences, and any person committing, abetting, instigating or provoking any violent act against mediapersons or media houses shall be punished with up to three years in jail or a fine of Rs.50,000 or both."

However, attempts to formulate a similar law on the national stage have been stymied by arguments that the Indian Penal Code has sufficient provisions to deal with attacks on journalists.

The Press Council of India too is not a very powerful body, with its recommendations not considered binding on any authority.   

Attacks on journalists are basically attacks on personnel in the line of duty – people working to expose corruption and rot in the system being done away with by that very system. A journalist silenced is a way to muzzle voices against those in power, and abusing that power. No democracy can thrive unless it has a free, fair and fearless press.

That cannot happen unless the law empowers those seeking to work for the powerless.  

Also read: Modi's India is facing an acute jobs crisis. And no one is talking about it

Writer

Yashee Yashee @yasheesingh

The writer is a journalist.

Like DailyO Facebook page to know what's trending.