India is failing to help and protect journalists who are facing violent threats or attacks for their work, an international watchdog agency said on Monday, noting a pattern of resistance in investigating crimes targeting reporters.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counted 27 journalists killed for their work since 1992, and noted that it was still investigating more than two dozen cases to determine whether those journalists' deaths were work-related. Most at risk are small-town journalists investigating corruption, rather than journalists in big cities such as New Delhi or Mumbai.
The New York-based watchdog said in a report released on Monday that it could find only one case in 10 years in India in which a suspect was prosecuted and convicted for killing a journalist, but that the suspect was later released on appeal.
"Perpetrators are seldom arrested," said Sujata Madhok, a member of the watchdog. "The torturously slow Indian judicial system, together with corruption in the police force and the criminalisation of politics, makes it possible to literally get away with murder."
The watchdog's findings are supported by another report, released in 2015 by India's own media watchdog, the Press Council of India. That found that even though the country's democratic institutions and independent judiciary were strong, people who killed journalists were getting away with impunity.
"The situation is truly alarming," the Press Council said, warning that the trend could hurt India's democracy, and pressing parliament to pass a nationwide law ensuring journalists' safety.
No state support for press freedom
CPJ noted that while newspaper reports on corruption scandals made for attention-grabbing headlines, those same corruption investigations tended to end abruptly if an involved journalist was killed.
"No government in India has been an ardent champion of press freedom," the report said. "Small-town journalists, even if a handful work for big media, will often find themselves alone and abandoned when trouble strikes."
The report focused on three cases of journalist killings in India, including the death in July 2015 of investigative reporter Akshay Singh, who was working on a story linked to an alleged $1bn racket for providing jobs and college admissions in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
A month before that, freelance reporter Jagendra Singh died after being set on fire while reporting on allegations of rape and land fraud levelled against a local minister in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
And in 2011 in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, journalist Umesh Rajput was shot dead while investigating alleged medical negligence as well as separate claims that a politician's son was involved in an illegal gambling business.
Indian journalists told the Associated Press that while journalists were key in exposing the country's widespread and endemic corruption, they were doing so despite inadequate safety guarantees.
"I can think of several cases where the police's first response to a threat, attack or killing of a journalist was to claim that the victim was not a journalist, or that the attack was not work-related," Mumbai-based editor Geeta Seshu said of the media-themed website The Hoot.
Authorities need to take the risk more seriously or face having reporters abandon their investigations, journalists said.
"Journalists have become vulnerable to pressure from local mafia, businesses, newspaper managements and the government," said Rahul Jalali, president of New Delhi's press club.
He and others noted, however, that while the press clubs scattered across the country were more focused on lobbying for labour rights and wage protections, they were also increasingly demanding better law and safety.
"We should try to compel governments and police to act more fairly, justly and quickly," Palagummi Sainath, the veteran journalist and author, said. "We can also ask media owners to take the safety of their journalists more seriously."