Monday, October 17, 2016

Geeta Seshu on what the Nation needs to know

23 Indian journalists have been killed since 2010. In all cases, there was fair warning that they were under severe threat... Perhaps security would have helped Jagendra Singh, who died of burns in June last year, a week before he posted his fears of being killed on his Facebook page... In almost all the other 22 instances of journalists who were killed since 2010, there was fair warning. The threat perception was very, very real. FIRs were lodged naming the persons they feared would attack them. Convictions, with one exception (where an appeal is pending), are nil. And yet, they had zero security.

It is a sign of the times we live in that the elevation of journalist Arnab Goswami to the status of a VIP with "Y" security has evoked more amusement than alarm. According to a report in The Hindustan Times, quoting an unidentified home ministry official, 20 guards, including two for "close proximity" security, will protect the editor-in-chief of Times Now news channel. The report adds that the security was necessitated by a threat perception of his comments on Pakistani terror groups.

When a journalist is under threat, however reviled or lauded he or she may be, the media profession does need to sit up and ask a few questions. However, since one is unsure whether the assignment of this much-coveted security status will make it to the Newshour debate, here are a few issues the nation needs to debate:

  1. How did the Intelligence Bureau arrive at this threat perception? Did it receive or intercept any message from said terror organisations?
  2. Which organisations were offended and have issued threats against the Times Now editor-in-chief?
  3. Why was the security category fixed at "Y"? Why not "Z" or "Z plus"?
  4.  Which particular comments made by the Times Now editor had seemed more threatening (and while we are at it, it would help to know which were less threatening).
  5. Did the threat perception affect only the editor in chief of Times Now or all the staffers and workers of the news channel? After all, surely the staff need to be protected in the event of an attack? What plan does the Union Ministry of Home Affairs have for the safety and security of other members of the Times Now team?
  6. And what about protection to the regular invitees in Times Now debates? Are they safe?
  7. How much is taxpayer money being allocated to this very important task and is it being utilised wisely?
  8. We are told Mukesh Ambani pays Rs 15 lakhs for his Z plus security on a cost-reimbursement basis. Will the Times Now editor-in-chief and his employers, Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd., be similarly burdened?
  9. Are the security personnel trained and equipped adequately? Is a check done periodically on the quality and efficacy of their bulletproof vests? Are they given non-lethal weapons too, like the pellet guns so much in fashion these days?
In the interests of media freedom these questions do need to be asked. Of course, there are other questions that are equally important to ensure the safety and security of journalists all over India.

Previous threats: There are other journalists who have been provided security by the government. For instance, the Times Now editor in chief is not the only journalist entitled to such high security. Bharatiya Janata Party MP andPunjab Kesari owner Ashwini Kumar Chopra gets the highest security according by the Indian state – Z plus, which gives him 16 more security personnel than Arnab Goswami gets. Chopra’s grandfather and father (Lala Jagat Narain and Romesh Chander were killed in 1981 and 1984 at the height of the Khalistan movement in Punjab). It would be useful to find out what the threat is to Chopra and whether the threat he faces has lessened or increased over the years.

But threats from terrorist groups aren’t the only reason why some journalists get security. Good taxpayer money goes into keeping the Zee News editor Sudhir Chaudhary safe, as he made it to the "X" category and gets four security guards, following a threat to his life in connection with an alleged extortion case against former Congress MP and industralist Naveen Jindal.

When journalists are threatened, it is the responsibility of the state to protect them. In fact, when any citizen is threatened, it is the state’s responsibility to protect them. Our Constitution does not accord any special category to the press but journalists are messengers of truth and factual reportage and take great pains and considerable risk to their lives to broadcast undoctored videos that help preserve national security. So one must not grudge them the protection of up to 36 highly trained commandos.

The issues at stake: So, in the interests of media freedom, let us provide the highest possible security to all journalists. We could begin with Scroll.in writer Malini Subramaniam, who was hounded out of Bastar by vigilante groups in February. Or, why not Prabhat Singh, jailed in March for over two months because a senior police officer in Bastar took offence to his allegedly objectionable WhatsApp message. Perhaps security would have helped Jagendra Singh, who died of burns in June last year, a week before he posted his fears of being killed on his Facebook page.

In almost all the other 22 instances of journalists who were killed since 2010, there was fair warning. The threat perception was very, very real. FIRs were lodged naming the persons they feared would attack them. Convictions, with one exception (where an appeal is pending), are nil.

And yet, they had zero security.

Surely, in the interests of national security, the nation needs answers.