NEW DELHI, India — India’s media has a loud voice. It needs it — in the world’s largest democracy, you often have to shout to be heard.
It’s opinionated. It’s chaotic. It’s a circus. It’s just like American TV.
Here’s the difference, though: unlike Fox News anchors, Indian reporters are chillingly easy to silence.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalist’s latest Impunity Index, India ranked 14th on the list of countries where journalists have been killed with complete impunity in the past decade. In the last 10 years, 11 Indian journalists were murdered as a result of their work and no one has been convicted of the crimes.
That’s not even half the picture. According to the CPJ, 37 journalists in India have been killed as a result of their work since 1992 — more than in Afghanistan. While 13 of them were killed on dangerous assignments, the remaining 24 were targeted and murdered. Most of them were covering politics and corruption. Only one received partial justice. In 23 cases, there have been no convictions at all.
Unlike many other countries in the index — which is topped by Somalia, Iraq and Syria — India is not a war zone. It’s a supposedly vibrant democracy with a supposedly functional justice system. And yet it has appeared on the Impunity Index every year since it was first compiled in 2008. Each month, new attacks reveal how dangerous it is to be a reporter here and how little the authorities are doing to change it.
Just last week, a reporter was shot dead in Uttar Pradesh, the third fatal attack on a journalist in the state in the last four months.
Better reporting has at least ensured that these cases make it into the news. But the victims are almost always local journalists who do not contribute to national media and whose deaths do not hold the country’s attention for long. Families file cases and police promise investigations, but once the public’s eyes shift elsewhere, the cases are buried under a pile of unsolved murders.
Journalists are often killed for exposing corruption in local government and police forces, the same authorities who are responsible for investigating their deaths and have little incentive to deliver justice. Compensation payouts and political pressure force economically struggling families to drop their complaints instead of spending expensive years in the courts.
Regulatory body the Press Council of India has called for a two-minute news blackout on Nov. 2 to protest authorities’ failure to prosecute the perpetrators of violence against journalists. Here’s what they’re talking about.
Akshay Singh: killed July 4, 2015
The reason for Akshay Singh’s death has never been confirmed, but it is hard to imagine the investigative TV journalist wasn’t murdered because of his work. As many as 49 people connected to the scandal he was covering have died in mysterious circumstances.
At the time of his death, Singh was covering the Vyapam scam: a massive racket in the state of Madhya Pradesh that saw people pay kickbacks for high marks on entrance exams for government jobs, professions and colleges. Some 2,000 people, including politicians, officials, doctors and students, have been arrested in connection with the scheme.
On July 4, Singh was interviewing the family of a woman linked to the case who had been found dead, possibly murdered. Reports say he had just drunk tea when he collapsed foaming at the mouth, showing signs of poison. He died before reaching the hospital. The Supreme Court has since ordered India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to look into the whole Vyapam case and all deaths related to it. Singh’s murder has not been solved.
Sandeep Kothari: killed June 19, 2015
Freelance reporter Sandeep Kothari spent the last five years of his life covering illegal sand mining networks in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Demand from the construction industry has made the practice so profitable that a “sand mafia” exists around it.
Kothari, who aside from his exposés had filed a court case against local mining company owners to stop them operating, had faced years of intimidation and fabricated criminal charges. On June 19 of this year, he was beaten and kidnapped by unknown men. The next day, the charred remains of his body were found near railway tracks. His family could only identify him by a keychain he was carrying.
“I pleaded with him so many times,” his sister said afterward, “‘leave journalism: you will die.’”
So far, seven people have been arrested for Kothari's murder. None have been convicted.
Jagendra Singh: killed June 1, 2015
Jagendra Singh, a Hindi-language journalist who posted most of his articles on Facebook pages, doggedly investigated corruption and land grabs in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Many of his reports were critical of a state representative, Ram Murti Singh Verma, who was accused amongst other things of gang-raping a woman alongside a police officer and three others.
On June 1, while Singh was speaking to the woman involved, police arrived at his home. The reporter was doused with fuel and burned alive. He survived long enough make a video statement accusing Verma’s henchmen — including the policeman accused of rape, Prakash Rai — of attacking him at the politician’s behest. Local police said that Singh had set fire to himself when they came to arrest him for some unspecified crime. Singh died a week later.
“At this time, politician, thugs, and police, all are after me,” he had written on Facebook two weeks earlier. “Writing the truth is bearing heavily on my life.”
The only witness, the woman who alleged that Verma and Rai had raped her, originally confirmed Singh’s account. She went on to withdraw both that statement and her accusation of rape. At least four policemen, including Rai, have since been suspended from duty. Verma, meanwhile, continues to serve the state of Uttar Pradesh as a minister. No one has been prosecuted.
Narendra Dabholkar: killed Aug. 20, 2013
Narendra Dhabolkar was what you might call a professional skeptic. The editor of a local-language magazine in Maharashtra state that promoted scientific thought, Dabholkar had spent decades writing and campaigning against superstition and the exploitation of blind faith. A forceful critic of India’s “godmen” — gurus who claim special powers — he helped draft a bill to have black magic and other for-profit rituals outlawed.
On the morning of Aug. 20, 2013, Dabholkar was out walking when two men on a motorbike shot four fatal rounds into his head and chest. They fled.
Three days later, the Maharashtra state government passed the anti-superstition bill that Dabholkar had advocated for into an ordinance, and later that year into a law. According to the anti-superstition organization that Dabholkar founded, over 150 arrests have been made under the legislation.
His murder, however, remains unsolved. The Central Bureau of Investigation has been probing the case for more than a year with no result.