Amid journalists’ killings, India’s press body chief says it needs more powers

June 26, 2015

Two journalists in India died this month after being set on fire. In the first case, Jagendra Singh, a freelance journalist from the Shahjahanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, was allegedly set on fire for his reporting. Police have registered a murder case against several officers, other men and state dairy development minister Ram Murti Singh Verma.

Singh, who operated a Facebook page called “Shahjahanpur Samachar” (Shahjahanpur News), uploaded posts regarding the alleged involvement of the minster in illegal mining and land grabbing. Verma, along with others, has been named in the first information report (FIR) although a forensic report suggested that Singh might have burned himself.

In the second, a Madhya Pradesh journalist Sandip Kothari was kidnapped and later burned to death, allegedly by the mining mafia.

The killings raise concerns about the safety of journalists in the country. Reuters spoke to Press Council of India (PCI) Chairman Justice Chandramauli Kumar Prasad for his views on the killings, journalist safety in India and the working conditions of local reporters working in dangerous places in the country. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: What is the PCI doing following the alleged murders of two journalists?
A: We have already constituted a committee (in the Shahjahanpur case). The convener (of the committee) has prepared his report and other members have to glance through it and give a final report to the council.

Q: When such an incident happens, should the council expedite the process?
A: In the case of Shajahanpur, we responded very quickly. The very next day after the incident, we constituted the committee and I believe in the next couple of days the committee members had gone to the place of the incident, met the family members, met others and even called upon the chief minister.

Q: Has the committee submitted its report?
A: No it has not been submitted. They have prepared the report and in a couple of days it will be submitted.

Q: And there is the alleged murder of another journalist in Madhya Pradesh.
A: We have called for the report from the state government.

Q: Have you also asked for a report from the Uttar Pradesh government?
A: As far as the fact finding committee is concerned, the committee goes, meets the (state) officials. They record their version and also that of the victim’s family. They also meet the top officials of the government – the chief secretary, the director general and the chief minister, and after that they submit a report.

Q: Is there any official communication between the PCI and the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
A: With Madhya Pradesh, we have already communicated (asking for a status report).

Q: Why have you not asked for a status report from the UP government?
A: Because we have already sent a fact-finding committee which called upon the top officials over the issue.

Q: What are the powers of the PCI? Can it ask the state government to act like a court can?
A: No, there is no power like that. And actually I always say it is the moral authority of the press council. When the press council says something, the status of the council should be that people take it seriously. You have to make it like this. Why do you respect court orders? They are not binding. You believe they are right, generally. Similarly, you must respect our views.

Q: You demanded a Special Investigation Team (SIT) probe into Shahjahanpur journalist Jagendra Singh’s death. SIT includes state officers. Why not ask for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)?
A: There are certain officers in every state whose integrity is respected by one and all. I said constitute a committee which includes men of impeccable integrity. And I am demanding this because a minister has been named in the FIR, otherwise I would not have asked for SIT (probe) also.journo

Q: What’s the harm in conducting a CBI probe? If he (the minister) is not involved he will come out clean.
A: I don’t want to compare the functioning of CBI with that of the SIT. Just put it like this. The moment you ask for a CBI enquiry, then in some substance, you are condemning all the (other) investigating agencies. You do not trust them. There has to be a reason for that. Why a normal channel should not be pursued? If I say there is no official in Uttar Pradesh with impeccable character and integrity, it’s very difficult.

Q: Do you think more power should be given to the PCI?
A: It is a very general impression in the journalistic circle that the PCI is a paper tiger. The reason is that there is no specific power. A magistrate can convict a person, and can impose a fine, but we don’t have such powers. I think the press council should be given some powers. There are various suggestions which are under consideration.

Q: There have been various conflicting reports on the number of journalists attacked in India in the past few years. Has the PCI independently tried to compile data?
A: We have a committee which has collected data from various sources. The New York Times said that within two-and-a-half years, 79 journalists died. We wrote to the New York Times on the very day the report was published, and the very next day they corrected. It’s 79 in two-and-a-half decades.

Q: Journalists working in small towns are under constant threat of attack if they pursue stories that might harm the interests of powerful people, and their wages are pathetically low. What can the PCI do for the welfare of these journalists?
A: See, you have welfare trust for lawyers, but again it is easy to identify a lawyer. I am contemplating something similar for journalists too, but it is at a very initial stage. But how to identify who is a journalist, apart from those who are accredited or under the company payrolls? I need suggestions on how it can be done.

Q: International media say India is not a very safe place for journalists. What do you think?
A: Prima facie, I don’t agree with that. Because, actually what is the criteria? I tell you, it’s just thinking aloud: how many journalists are there in India, what is the population of the country? Suppose (in) a country of 100 journalists, if five are killed, it is a very serious matter. And if it’s a country of 10,000 journalists, then? I condemn the killing of even one journalist, but you have to think in that line also. Say 79 journalists have been killed in two-and-a-half decades, it comes to what? Three journalists a year. Don’t misunderstand me, I am condemning every single death. What I am saying is – when you compare with others, you are good because you have 97 percent marks. I am good because I have 85 percent marks.

Q: Do you think the reputation of journalists has gone down in recent times?
A:  Journalists are loved by people, I believe so.

Q: But there is a minister who brands journalists “presstitutes”.
A: He has a right to his own views. I am not trying to defend him. You are referring to General VK Singh’s statement. Actually what he explains… that few of journalists are like this. If he has a view like this, he has a view like this.

Q: You agree with his view?
A: To say that every journalist is good, every journalist is extraordinary, would be too bold a statement.

Q: When he said that, it started trending on Twitter, Facebook and the media was described as “presstitute” by trolls, by the huge number of BJP supporters who are on social media. Is this the general perception?
A: No, no, I don’t think so. People in the media are respected. There is no doubt about it. If there is freedom of press, the freedom (of expression) is also available to the minister. He may be right in his views or he may be wrong.

Q: You don’t think there is any negative sentiment around journalists? They are not hated?
A: (With) the little experience I have, I don’t find that.

Q: But what if people are targeted for writing against or criticizing the policies of the government?
A: In that case our doors are always open. We will take care of that. If somebody is harassed for his critical writing, we are here. We are here to protect that.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; You can follow Amit on Twitter @leosamit and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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