The sword is not mightier than the pen. This metonymic adage has reassured scribes the world over down the ages. But then, what about the gun and the bullets it can fire from point-blank range? That is the question haunting champions of free speech in Bihar, where five journalists have been killed in a little over a year. One more was killed close to the state’s borders with adjoining Jharkhand as well, raising fears over the use of violence to muzzle the voice of the media in the gangetic badlands.
On November 12, Saturday, Dharmendra Kumar Singh, a stringer with a leading Hindi daily, was sipping tea at a roadside stall after his morning stroll when three motorcycle-borne armed men appeared out of nowhere and sprayed bullets at him. The 40-year-old journo from Amra Talab village in Rohtas district was rushed to a hospital in Varanasi, the nearest big city, but he could not be saved.
Dharmendra’s family and the colleagues in the local media felt he had paid the price for being a committed journalist, someone who was not afraid to take on the powerful stone-crusher mafia operating in the area. His news reports were his only weapon.
Bihar is no stranger to such killings, and yet the murder of one newsman after another in quick succession has shocked even hardened sensibilities. Dharmendra’s killing came close on the heels of the gunning down of Rajdeo Ranjan, district bureau chief of another Hindi daily near Siwan railway station in May this year. His kin accused incarcerated RJD strongman Mohammad Shahabuddin of conspiring to get him bumped off. The journalist, they said, had been writing against him again and again in his newspaper.
Dharmendra Singh, a stringer with a Hindi daily, was shot dead by three men on a motorcycle while sipping tea at a roadside stall in a village in Rohtas district.
Shortly before Rajdeo’s killing, a controversial photograph of senior RJD minister Abdul Ghafoor meeting Shahabuddin in prison, in apparent violation of the jail manual, had gone viral. It was said that Rajdeo had played a key role in putting out the photograph in the public domain, kicking up a major row that embarrassed Nitish Kumar’s Grand Alliance government. However, Shahabuddin—the four-term Siwan MP who has already been convicted for life in two murder cases and has been in jail for more than 11 years—trashed all charges.
Cut to Darbhanga, where Ramchandra Yadav, a reporter who won the panchayat election last year and became the mukhiya of Kewatgama panchayat, was shot dead while returning home after meeting officials of the local administration. Yadav had been a correspondent with a national Hindi daily for several years until he became the village mukhiya.
Last year, two reporters, Mithilesh Pandey and Ajay Vidrohi, were gunned down in Gaya and Sitamarhi districts, respectively, ahead of the Bihar assembly elections. And around the time Rajdeo was killed this May, Akhilesh Pratap Singh, a stringer with a national television channel, was killed in Jharkhand’s Chatra district, not far from the Bihar border.
The killing of stringers stationed in remote areas sent shockwaves across Bihar and beyond, prompting the state journalists’ unions to seek protection of the lives of their members. “The lives of journalists, especially those operating from remote areas, are at the risk these days,” says Prem Kumar, general secretary of the Bihar Working Journalists Union (BWJU). “Criminals are getting bolder and eliminating those who do their duty without fear or favour.”
The BWJU organised a sit-in in Patna on Tuesday to protest against the killings. “The government must introduce a Journalist Protection Act to safeguard the lives of scribes who brave all odds to gather news in Bihar,” says Prem.
The Opposition, too, believes that journalists in Bihar are at greater risk of being assaulted or killed than ever before. “It has become extremely difficult to pursue independent and fearless reporting in Bihar,” says senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi. “Rajdeo Ranjan’s reports against Shahabuddin cost him his life. Dharmendra, too, might have lost his life only because he filed reports against the flourishing stone mafia in Rohtas district.”
The former deputy chief minister says that apart from the killings, there have been many cases of scribes or their kin being assaulted. “These incidents belie Nitish Kumar’s claims of good governance,” he claims. “It is ridiculous to assert that rule of law still exists in Bihar.”
This April, a stringer working for a national television channel was beaten up by criminals when he was returning after covering an event in Kaimur district. Two months later, another television reporter was assaulted in Vaishali.
The ruling Janata Dal (United), however, rubbishes allegations against their government. “Rule of law definitely exists in Bihar. Nobody can escape from the law after committing a crime,” party spokesperson Neeraj Kumar tells Outlook. “The culprits will surely be caught and put to speedy trial soon.”
The JD(U) leader says that even though the Bihar police had cracked the Rajdeo Ranjan murder case, the state government later went along with his family’s demand for a CBI probe and recommended it. “The CBI, however, took an inordinately long time to take up the case,” he rues.
Claiming that the police are probing all angles even in Dharmendra’s case, he says, “Whoever is involved, for whatever reasons, will not get away.”
While there is no denying that a majority of small-town stringers fight against all odds to gather news, some have been accused of benefiting through being journalists rather than from doing journalism. “Stringers hired by different dailies and television channels are usually paid a pittance, or nothing, in the name of remuneration,” says Patna-based journalist Gyaneshwar Vatsyayan. “Since it is impossible to run their kitchens with the measly amount they receive every month, some end up using unscrupulous means to augment their income.”
The veteran crime writer, who now runs online news portal Live Cities, which features news from every district and major town in Bihar, says it is very rare for full-time journalists from the mainstream media to be killed in Bihar. “I have been a crime reporter for long and incurred the wrath of many powerful people by filing reports against them,” he says. “Many of my colleagues have done so for years, and yet nobody has intimidated or threatened us with dire consequences so far.”
Gyaneshwar says he would desist from linking every murder of a journalist in Bihar to their work as journalists as “sometimes, there are factors other than professional—contracts, personal enmity, etc—behind the killings”.
A senior journalist, who did not wish to be named, tells Outlook that many stringers tend to misuse the platform they get through journalism. “I had once hired a stringer for Rs 1,200 a month in a Naxal-infested district,” he recalls. “After some time, I started receiving complaints that he had amassed a lot of wealth through government contracts. I soon found out he had developed friendly relations with the Maoists in the area. Since nobody else made a bid for government tenders because of the Maoists’ demand for levy, the local administration had no choice but to award the contracts to this part-time scribe.”
That may well be an exception, according to media watchers in Bihar, since a majority of stringers are committed to newsgathering despite facing a lot of hardships. “They are an exploited lot, to say the least,” says Gyaneshwar. “It is high time the government and media houses took concrete steps to improve their financial condition. After all, they are the ones who bring reports from ground zero and their contribution cannot be underestimated.”
He has a point. Last year, it was a viral photograph of mass copying in the matriculation examination taken by a part-time photographer that exposed the rotten examination system in Bihar. This year also, it was an interview of class XII toppers by a television channel stringer that blew the lid off a mega scam in the Bihar School Examination Board.