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Citizen Journalism in 'Developing' India: Pay with life for reporting, Why India ranks at 136/180 in World Press Freedom Index?

Citizen Journalism in 'Developing' India: Pay with life for reporting, Why India ranks at 136/180 in World Press Freedom Index?

The incidents of attacks on citizen journalists have increased in India with the penetration of Internet, and diffusion of social media websites.

India is a 'Developing' country: one of the reasons is there is no protection for a conscientious citizen especially if he or she has the temerity to report like a journalist on issues that matter to the country.

India has a vibrant climate for (news) media industries: newspapers' circulation is not falling unlike in the West; television channels for entertainment and news have a dedicated audience on the lines of language and political parties; private radio stations have gained popularity though precluded from airing news! Yet, AIR, is unbeatable in its reach and content where one can also listen to the Prime Minister's Mann Ki Baat (Words from the Mind/Heart!); and there is an Internet-induced new media. New Media includes traditional media on online, exclusively online only websites, news and its related events presented in multimedia formats (text, audio, video, photos, infographics, or anything that is sourced however raw or edited) and social media sites that are emerging as the trusted platform to post one's grievance or share one's plight in the interest of the public and citizens too.

India is also the country where political parties like CPI (M), TRS, YSR CP, AIADMK, DMK, CPI have television channels to promote their 'news' and 'views' from their perspective. The Congress and BJP do not own a television station but they have one or the other television proprietor aligning with them depending upon the political circumstances, and whether he or she is under the radar of ED or CBI.

With a plethora of news outlets (thriving Fourth Estate), and the Constitution of India guaranteeing the Right to Freedom of Expression, then, why India scores appallingly and badly in the World Press Freedom Index?

According to the 2015 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (rsf.org), India figures at 136th place out of 180 countries. The top five are Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden while India ranks at 136: the bottom six are China (176), Syrian Arab Republic (177), Turkmenistan (178), Democratic People's Republic of Korea i.e., North Korea (179) and Eritrea (180). The Press Freedom Barometer lists that last year in India: 32 journalists killed, 4 netizens and citizen journalists killed, 153 journalists imprisoned and 176 netizens imprisoned (even for posting newsy aspect of an issue).

Rsf.org monitors attacks on freedom of information worldwide; also it gives moral and financial assistance to persecuted journalists, and their families! (If there is one, the Indian media (welfare) organization should take at least a cue from the former.) It monitored the developments surrounding Jagendra Singh, the social media activist, who paid a price with his life for reporting about a minister's monetary growth unlike his constituents.

In April 2015, India censored Al-Jazeera from broadcasting for five days from 22-27, "for displaying maps in which India's border with neighbouring Pakistan in Kashmir did not correspond to its territorial claims".

Jagendra Singh was attacked on 1 June, and was torched (in the guise police raid). He was hospitalized with burns, subsequently he died on 8 June. He hailed from India's political, and the largest state of Uttar Pradesh. Jagendra Singh did what the mainstream media could not do: India's largest circulated (Hindi) newspapers have high penetration in the Hindi (Hindu) heartland states but none of them dared to report what a citizen journalist from Shahjahanpur embarked upon.

With no assured revenue, no advertisements, no assistants and assistance but overwhelmed to highlight the local issues through social media website, Jagendra Singh started 'Shahjahanpur Samachar' on Facebook (another one as well: Shahjanpur Photoshop possibly to source some rupees). Jagendra Singh amassed 4,915 followers which is more than one follower for every square kilometer of Shahjahanpur district. The district was established before India's First War of Independence or the Sepoy Mutiny in Rohilkhand division (in 1813). The headquarters of the district is also Shahjahanpur, a town with a population of more 300 thousand inhabitants.

On Facebook, Jagendra Singh posted about the news-related developments (what he said, what she said, crimes, minister is coming, accidents, heritage…) and also on the activities of the district's most popular politician and a minister Ram Murti Verma. Jagendra Singh informed his audience how the minister became rich in such a short span time (which usually happens by innovating something, or winning a lottery, or stumbling upon a treasure under the floor or under the mattress in Indian context). Singh allegedly posted (now his Facebook page shows little activity, possibly posts are deleted) Ram Murti Verma's extraordinary deeds of extortions, land grabbing, encroaching into lands of others, sand mining (Shahjahanpur is named after the Mughal ruler Shahjahan because he gifted the areas to Dariya Khan, a soldier in the Mughal army. Apart from its historical significance, the area is drained by Ramganga, Garrah and Gomti otherwise it is agricultural district with an Ordnance Clothing Factory but the minister saw the wealth on the banks of Ganges' tributaries).

With 68.92% literacy rate and a sex ratio of 894, Shahjahanpur Samachar gave unusual information to its subscribers not found in the traditional media of Shahjanpur district. But the non-journalist's journalistic work came to the attention of the minister Ram Murti Verm. He inferred one aspect of Jagendra Singh that he did not belonged to any media organization, not even a stringer of Dainik Jagran or Dainik Bhaskar or The Pioneer. The minister allegedly ordered his henchmen, aka police of the Akhilesh Singh Yadav government, to intimidate the social media activist Jagendra Singh. The police acted on the minister's words, and attacked the citizen journalist by setting fire. Jagendra Singh sustained burn injuries: he is no more! India's mainstream media reported: and also, Reporters Without Borders which noted with a photo: "Singh named police inspector Sriprakash Rai as the person who set him on fire. Relatives and other eye-witnesses confirmed his version of the events. Singh also accused Verma of subjecting him and his family to a "reign of terror" because of Singh's investigative reporting and comments about him." The minister continues to function as the key member of the Akhilesh Singh Yadav government run by Samajwadi Party.

The incidents of attacks on citizen journalists (remember Aseem Trivdei) have increased in India with the penetration of Internet, and diffusion of social media websites. The lives of citizen journalists are endangered unlike the professional journalists who have the support of their organization.

One of the defining features of a 'Developed' country is protecting the citizens. India continues to be a 'Developing' country because it cannot protect its citizens: police go to the house of Jagendra Singh, and set fire to him. (The police defend the action: he set fire to himself to evade arrest!) If such instances happen why wouldn't India fair (appallingly) poorly in the Press Freedom Index?

However, India is going to witness more journalistic action on social media websites in spite of RTI: welcome citizen journalism.

(Kovuuri G. Reddy is the author of 'Handbook of Journalism and Media: India, Bharat, Hindustan'. He can be reached at kovuuri.g.reddy@gmail.com)

first published:June 19, 2015, 14:06 IST