Republic In Peril:A Report on Recent Assaults on Journalists in Delhi
(The summary, analysis and conclusion of the report of the Committee Against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ.The full report can be accessed here)
Committee Against Assault on Journalists (CAAJ) has prepared a report titled “Republic In Peril” on recent cases of Assaults on Journalists in Delhi covering three months from December 2019 to February 2020. The report documented 32 instances of assaults on journalists in three phases. The first phase was from December 15 to December 20, 2019 when seven journalists were assaulted when covering the attack on Jamia Millia Islamia University in the wake of the anti-CAA protests; the second phase was in January, 2020, beginning with the targeting of journalists outside Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and the third phase in February 2020, during the three-day violence in Delhi.
As its summary report said:
The third phase is a dark chapter of horror in the history of Freedom of Press in Delhi that reminded many of the Emergency days. Around 18 cases were reported where journalists were not only stopped from coverage, but identified as Hindu/Muslims, ashamed publicly and beaten up by the rioting mob. There camera, equipment broken and vehicles burnt up by the mob. Many cases have gone unreported due to horror.
Mainstream media journalists from almost each and every banner recounted their ordeal on social media. Almost each and every media rights organisation condemned the assaults and raised question on the complicity of police forces in not containing the ravaging mob.
The report observes these three phases in continuity. The first spate of attacks by the state and non-state actors was a testing ground that builds up into a full-fledged consolidated attack on Press during Delhi violence in the last week of February.
The frequency speaks a lot. The first phase lasted for about a week, second phase stretched up for the whole month but cases were almost same in number counting up to a maximum of ten.
The last phase was not only horrible in terms of numbers and frequency but intensity too. Within a matter of two days when violence spread in North-East Delhi, around 18 assault cases took place that makes ten cases per day an average.
Not only this, the nature of assault was also unprecedented. A Journalist was directly shot at, one was forced to drop pants and another was forced to chant religious hymns. Religious identification was the bottom-line during third phase of assault
Analysis and Conclusion
As stated in the Introduction chapter, the recent spate of assaults on journalists in Delhi points toward a sharp change of paradigm in the context of Right to Freedom of Expression and Speech. Now a journalist covering an event/incident on ground is being apprehended by his/her banner/brand and reacted upon much before he/she speaks (truth or whatever).
Not only this, journalists on ground are directed and forced to speak and write the version of truth that his/her intimidator wants to get through. If it does not suit their version, journalists are attacked, molested, shamed publicly.
The recent cases of assault on journalists in National Capital Territory of Delhi bear phenomenal change in two fundamental dimensions: the nature of assault and the identity of assaulter. The chronology of events as well as profile of assaulted journalists may be helpful to uncover some bitter truths.
Phase 1: Not a co-incidence
A total of three journalists, all Muslims, were mistreated by the Police: one from Urdu Media, another from a digital platform and third from BBC, an international media outlet. No discrimination in terms of banner or organisation, as we could clearly see. This does not point towards a clear case of identification based assault because the same fate was met by journalists from Matrubhumi News too, both non-Muslims. This only proves a point that journalists with Muslim identity are more vulnerable during coverage. There is nothing new in this observation.
Another three cases where mob attacked journalists are from Zee News, ANI and Asianet News. The mob here essentially comprised Jamia students and locals. Decoding assault on Zee News and ANI by Jamia mob does not require much wisdom. It clearly relates to the partisan character of these media outlets that have created a sense of hatred towards them in minority.
Polarisation in media is also not new. Media has gradually shifted sides during last few year dates as per its ownership patterns and interests. This has not only resulted in the polarisation of ground coverage but views too. It is not a co-incidence that Zee News, that boasts itself as “Rashtravadi” (nationalist) news channel was targeted around Jamia. Republic has also complained of attacks on its crew in Jamia. It also boasts itself of being nationalist. ANI holds a business monopoly in syndicating visuals to electronic news channels and in the last six years, it has been instrumental in spreading pro-establishment narrative among masses.
Deepak Chaurasia from News Nation and Sudheer Chaudhary from Zee had gone to cover Shaheen Bagh but they were not allowed by the locals to enter inside. This was only due to the partisan character of their platforms.
The partisan character of media results in the partisan character of assault. This phenomenon is gaining traction inside Indian society now for long. That is why first phase of assaults were not a co-incidence.
Phase 2: Outsourcing Violence
JNU is the center stage of this phase where larger narrative of “nationalism” (as floated by the ruling regime) is operating behind attacks. As could be seen in the testimonies, assaulters where a sloganeering “rightwing” mob including ABVP students who termed journalists as “naxalwadi”, “jihadi”, etc. These journalists belonged to national media outlets like Aaj Tak, Scroll.in, The Hindu, Newslaundry etc.
A number of testimonies from harassed scribes posted on Twitter the same night reported the same sentence overheard in the mob: “Beat up NDTV guys if you see them.” This shows that the “rightwing” mob present outside JNU on January 5, 2020 was acting solely on its partisan perception that NDTV, Aaj Tak, Scroll, The Hindu etc. are “anti-national” media. Hence they were stopped from doing their duty and Ayush Tiwari was forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” to prove his “nationalism”.
Again Zee News team was assaulted near Jamia which proves the point that partisan character of media invites partisan assault.
But the fundamental departure from first phase of assaults became eventually clear on January 31, 2020 when several journalists were picked up and detained from Rajghat by Delhi Police, although there was no confrontation on that site. People gathered there peacefully to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi but the police did not allow them to do so and picked each and every journalist present there indiscriminately.
This proves an extra case of partisan perception and thus polarised assault on media by State apparatus as well as “rightwing” mob. The icing on the cake is the violence outsourced (the rightwing mob)!
Phase 3: The Experiment
The third phase of assaults when North-East Delhi was burning was a build-up and mix-up of first two phases. Reality cannot be starker than this when not a single journalist was spared by
the mob that went on ground to cover violence. Bottom line was clear: prove your identity to mob and speak what is dear to it.
Akash Napa of JK 24 News was shot at. NDTV crew was attacked. Firstpost, CNN News 18, The Indian Express, Scroll, HT, India Today, Times Now, News X, Republic TV, TOI, Reuters, the entire spectrum of national media outlets became vulnerable to a rioting mob. The weakest of them, a freelancer Sushil Manav, covering for website Janchowk was not only ashamed but forced to chant Hanuman Chaleesa twice and still beaten up.
This was a complete collapse: indiscriminate attack on the Press, not a co-incidence, with outsourced violence and an all-out experiment in itself that needs to be seen in historical perspective.
The Last Nail
Chronology of events and assault cases run side by side in this report. As could be seen from February timeline, it came as a ray of hope when the High Court of Delhi presided by Justice Murlidharan took cognizance of violent situation at midnight, opened the court for hearing and directed the police to submit a report of compliance which should include information about the injured victims and the treatments offered to them. Next morning during the hearing, court directed the police to decide within 24 hours on filing cases related to the hate speeches made by the four BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma and Abhay Verma. The bench expressed “anguish” on the inability of Delhi Police to control the riots and its failure to file FIRs against the BJP leaders for their hate speeches.
Unfortunately on the late night of 26 February, Justice S. Muralidhar who presided over the bench, hearing the plea, was transferred to Punjab and Haryana High Court. This was the last nail in the series of events that unfolded since CAA was passed by parliament. The “experiment” came to its full and final.
Republic in Peril
Since last three months national discourse is centered on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. CAA was passed by parliament without much debate in an aggressive manner. It is true that CAA was passed by majority of parliamentarians that represent the current government, but another face of reality should not be ignored: Among 91 Crore eligible voters where just 67 per cent turned out to vote in 2019, BJP secured around 22 Crore votes which is just one-fourth of the total eligible voters. Making an act on the basis of 25 per cent electorate and ignoring rest 75 per cent is the root cause of opposition to CAA. BJP led regime has ignored this crucial point. This is the failure of Legislature.
Coming to the Executive, we know that as per the Constitution of India, Prime Minister leads the executive branch of Government of India in the capacity of head of Council of Ministers accountable to it. In reality, we see that the whole executive branch has been centralised since 2014 where Council of Ministers has been reduced to irrelevance. This has been proved time and again, more recently in Maharashtra where President Rule was invoked at midnight and Devendra Fadnavis was sworn-in without the Union Cabinet meet. The constitutional obligation of PM being accountable to Union Council of Ministers is a rare sight in this government that proves the failure of Executive.
Media has been called the Fourth Estate of Republic. In recent times, we have witnessed a complete partisan character of media owing to its ownership and business model. The coining of new terms such as “Godi” (lapdog) media and “Rashtrawadi” media suggest a complete polarisation among media outlets. This has created a perception polarisation among media consumers who consume the information and news from “our” media and reject “their” media. The polarisation of news landscape has resulted in identification of individual journalists from their banners/brands. This identification either glorifies an individual journalist or vilifies it.
Here comes the polarised character of assault too. The assaults on journalists have increasingly become some sort of “identity punishing”, depending which group he/she is representing. This we have shown in first two phases of assault in December and January. Whenever this sort of assault takes place, the reaction inside the media fraternity is also divided on the same lines. Never has been a single incident of assault in last few years when the whole fraternity spoke in a single voice.
The natural result of this complicity and partisanship was what we witnessed in the last week of February when no one was in the condition to prove his/her innocence and credentials in front of a rioting mob, asking for identity proof. A scribe from a partisan media house was targeted for the same cause whereas another scribe from a non-partisan outlet was targeted due to the polarised perception. The reality and perception both stand polarised heavily. Journalists on ground are paying price for it.
So, where is that Fourth Estate of Republic?
All the four pillars of democratic republic appear to have crumbled down in the light of what Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said on March 3, 2020:
“We cannot stop things from happening. We cannot give preventive reliefs. We feel a kind of pressure on us. We can only deal with the situation after it occurs, the kind of pressure on us, we can’t handle that. It’s like Court is responsible. We are reading newspapers; we know the kinds of comments are made. Courts come on to the scene after the thing is done and courts have not been able to prevent such a thing.”