The brazen killing of Bengaluru-based senior journalist Gauri Lankesh by unidentified gunmen reinforces that India continues to be deadly for journalists. Several international bodies have noted how attacks on journalists in the country tend to be carried out with impunity. At least 27 journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work in India since 1992, according to CPJ research. In its 2017 World Press Freedom ranking, Reporters Without Borders noted, "Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.
Like other cities Kolkata also witnessed several rallies protesting the murder of Gauri Lankesh and demanding justice. But the media fraternity in the city is now divided after the Press Club organised a candlelight vigil for protests on Wednesday, 6 September.
At the protest meet Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was present and protesting along with the journalists gathered there. However, some journalists took exception to her presence and left the protest rally. Several senior journalists left the protest meet after they saw Chief Minster. They could not accept Chief Minister's presence in the protest rally. A senior journalist, Biswajit Roy, posted on Facebook that though he had joined the Press Club protest as a "responsible journalist," he was unable to stay when he saw the CM and her party members leading the way. He also expressed disappointment with colleagues who chose to protest side by side with the Trinamool Congress.
I too posted on Facebook, questioning why the CM was present at protest meet organised by journalists. I also mentioned the fact that in a protest march organised by the Left Front in May, more than 50 journalists were beaten up—what is the Press Club's stand on that? No action has yet been taken against the perpetrators of the May incident.
I was not the only person to notice the contradiction. Journalist Premankur Biswas, for example, said that though the CM joining the rally was an "important gesture", we should "not forget that she is also accountable for the brutal assault."
After seeing my post on Facebook, a senior member of the Press Club sent me a private message in which he accused me of slander and said, "Don't spread rumours without knowing the facts. Police brutality on journalists and Lankesh's killing aren't the same thing. This is saffron terrorism." He added that the Chief Minister is a Lifetime Member of the Press Club (as are ex CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and scholar Amartya Sen) and is thus entitled to participate in events such as the rally.
Resentment towards the Kolkata Press Club
According to some sections of the media, the Kolkata Press Club's current executive committee is pro-government as all of them were nominated by Chief Minister. On 22 May, 2017 more than 50 mediapersons were brutally attacked by the Kolkata Police just a few metres away from the Press Club. The Kolkata Press Club issued a statement condemning the incident, but without signatures. Following this, some journalists held a a protest march from Rabindra Sadan to Lalbazar Police Headquarters demanding justice. After this, though, the Press Club was silent on the matter. So it is surprising to see its zeal—supported by the CM—following the murder of Gauri Lankesh.
Attacks on the media in Kolkata this year
27 April at Sealdah Station
Photojournalists who were covering BJP president Amit Shah's event at Sealdah Railway Station were manhandled by BJP supporters in Kolkata. Several media persons were attacked including women journalists.
8 May at Dorina Crossing
There was a scuffle between photojournalists and Kolkata Police during a protest rally organised by Bhangar Jibon Jibika Rokkha Committe at Esplanade in Kolkata. Subhojyoti Kanjilal, a photographer with the Times of India, was injured and his camera was also damaged.
16 May at Park Street
The police attacked several photojournalists and camerapersons who were covering a fire in Kohinoor Building on Park Street. The police attacked mediapersons, accusing them of obstructing the fire department. The driver of a police van kicked and pushed several photojournalists in front of police officers who took no action. Four journalists—Sukanta Mukherjee, a reporter with ETV News, Biplab Bhattacharya, a photographer with Times of India, Samiran Biswas, a cameraperson with ETV News and a cameraperson with 24 Ghanta News Channel—were injured during the scuffle, while five cameras were also damaged.
In this regard The International Federation of Journalists said:
"We strongly criticise the attack on media workers in Kolkata who were simply performing their duties behind the police cordon. The failure of local police to stop the attack raises grave concerns for the safety of journalists in West Bengal. This hostility towards journalists is not confined to West Bengal and is becoming a growing issue across India. We join our colleagues in West Bengal is demanding immediate action from the Chief Minister and the local police."
22 May at Mayo Road
More than 50 mediapersons were attacked and beaten by police officers and personnel of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) as they covered a protest march organised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in at the Esplanade in Kolkata, West Bengal. The attack saw dozens of journalists and media workers seriously injured and requiring hospital treatment. The IFJ said:
"Journalists are facing increasing challenges working in India, and attacks such as these create a volatile working environment for the media. Action needs to be taken to ensure the media are safe and secure as they work."
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organisation said police officials should identify and discipline the officers who assaulted dozens of journalists in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler said:
"Beating journalists protesting their earlier unprovoked beating at the hands of police takes disregard for press freedom to new levels. The officer who gave the order to beat reporters in Kolkata should be disciplined, and police should be trained to protect, not assault journalists."
29 August at R R Avenue
The Chit Fund Sufferers Forum held a protest rally at Rani Rashmani Avenue, demanding justice. During this agitation Saikat Paul and two photojournalists were manhandled by protestors.
For the above-mentioned incidents every time we local journalists protested individually and called on the Chief Minister of West Bengal and the Kolkata Police to take action, we were brushed aside. Now Mamata Banerjee is referring to the Bengaluru incident as "alarming."
Perhaps the CM needs to look closer home, where under her regime the press has come under attack several times, even by the police. When we protest we are ignored and our pleas for justice go unheard. Therefore, can you really blame us for finding it hypocritical that she is now demanding justice for a crime against a journalist?