“Those who killed, killed in the open. Thugs committed their thuggery in the public eye, with a spring in their step. .. A dark, frightening cloud of reality had descended, one that no one had expected.”

Uday Prakash, ‘Mangosil’, The Walls of Delhi

In the 1980s, Kulbir Natt and other journalists chronicled the period in Punjab when newspapers such as the Punjab Kesari, Jag Bani and Hind Samachar were targetted by terrorists. Agents and hawkers across the state received letters that declared: “If any hawker is seen selling these papers, he will be killed.” 16 agents and hawkers were murdered in a single year for the “crime” of selling Jag Bani alone, and for a while, those grim numbers rose steadily.

In 1984, the editor of the Hind Samachar group, Ramesh Chandra, was shot dead; doctors counted 64 bullet holes in his body. Journalists and editors from other groups were also gunned down or killed by parcel bombs. But as Robin Jeffrey notes, despite the attacks on hawkers and journalists, the sales of Punjab Kesari grew, and readers donated in record numbers to the group’s fund for martyrs.

Last week, the killing of a 40-year-old journalist in Madhya Pradesh grabbed national headlines. Two days after Sandeep Kothari had been abducted from Katangi tehsil in Balaghat, his body was found near the railway lines in Wardha district, about a two-and-a-half hour drive away. He had been burned alive.

In the last few years, cases had been lodged against Kothari on various charges, including rape, but local journalists said these were “false accusations”, suggesting that these cases had been levied in an attempt to stop him from investigating the sand mafia. Kothari’s clinically executed murder came within weeks of the killing of the journalist Jagendra Singh in Uttar Pradesh; Singh’s family alleged that he had been set on fire by a police inspector, for his criticism of UP state minister Ram Murti Verma.

These murders should not be seen as isolated incidents, or as a problem specific to any one state, though UP’s casual lawlessness makes it something of a market leader in the grisly business of bumping off and intimidating journalists. As The Hoot.org’s free speech tracker indicates, the steady rise in the murders of and threats against regional language media is a red warning light for free speech in general. This trend directly impacts the public’s right to question corporates — mining, oil and sand conglomerates in particular, as well as politicians, state officials and godmen.

While the 1990s and the early 2000s saw the silencing of local journalists, especially in Kashmir, some North-eastern states, and increasingly in places like Chattisgarh, it was roughly in 2011-2012 that other patterns began to emerge. Journalists were attacked in 2012 for reporting on illegal construction (in Gujarat), illegal tree-cutting (in Chattisgarh), threatened for asking questions about illegal expenditure by the state (in Jharkhand).

In the same year, journalists were grievously wounded or killed in the line of duty for a variety of reasons. CPJ (the Committee to Protect Journalists) reported that Tongam Rina was shot outside the offices of her newspaper, the Arunachal Times, possibly for her coverage of the environmental damage that would be caused by a proposed project on big dams. Rina survived with extensive injuries. Rajesh Mishra, who wrote for Media Raj in Madhya Pradesh, died when he was assaulted by two men; he had written on corruption in the local school system.

There were several other deaths, but it was in 2013 that the toll rose to a record, and horrifying, figure of 11 journalists killed across India. Veteran reporter Anita Joshua compared this to Syria, where 16 journalists died in the same year, and Pakistan, where nine journalists lost their lives. Most of the victims were from regional language papers; a strikingly high number of them covered corruption in one form or the other, often on the environmental beat.

The number of dead dropped in 2014, though journalists who lost their lives were killed for reasons that now seem familiar. Tarun Kumar Acharya, a freelancer who contributed to Odiya television and local print media, was found with his throat slit after he completed a series of reports indicting the use of child labour in cashew factories. He was just 35 years old. MVN Shankar, 53, was attacked in front of his house in the same year – he had covered the kerosene mafia in Andhra Pradesh. However, as The Hoot recorded, the number of reported but non-fatal attacks on journalists remained high.

The murders of journalists in 2015 underscore the rising power of regional language media, especially local-language newspapers. Samanth Subramanian writes in an article for the New York Review of Books that the regional language press has grown in both circulation and ambition. “The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English,” he wrote, noting that today’s regional press covers technology, world news and business.

And today, it is the regional press reporter who is far more likely to report on environmental conflicts or corruption in their own area, to cover beats that remain invisible or unimportant to English-language television’s Delhi-centric studios. This ability to question and challenge everything from the state’s officials to crooked development schemes has been both a strength and as is becoming tragically clear, also a vulnerability. The deaths of these journalists have so far been under-reported, except by rights organisations that track either the media or free speech.

In 2013, India showed up on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which covers the list of countries “where journalists’ murders are most likely to go unpunished”, including Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Mexico.

Indians are obsessed with achieving world records, no matter how fatuous. Scan the complete list of dead, injured or threatened regional language journalists, though, and you hope that this is one world record list on which we will not continue to feature.

(Published in the Business Standard, June 22, 2015)