Sword Mightier Than Pen as Journalist Deaths Rise to Six

Published on
by
The Sydney Morning Herald

Sword Mightier Than Pen as Journalist Deaths Rise to Six

by
Matt Wade

activists light candles for the assassinated newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickramatunga. (Photo: AFP)

NEW DELHI - It has been a bloody start to this year for media workers on the Indian subcontinent.

Out of the six journalists killed across the world this year, four are from this part of the world.

But that's not unusual. South Asia - which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan - is the riskiest place on earth for media workers, says the Brussels-based media watchdog, the International News Safety Institute.

It has released figures showing 10 media workers died in India last year, the equal second largest number after Iraq. Pakistan was fifth on the institute's list of most dangerous countries.

"We consider South Asia to be just about the most dangerous region in the world for journalists to work, especially local reports, because almost every country in the region has some sort of conflict going on," said Sarah de Jong, the institute's deputy director.

These conflicts range from little-known insurgencies in India to full-blown wars in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

However, the problem is not just one of media workers being caught in crossfire and random acts of violence. Ms De Jong said there had been a worrying rise in the number of South Asian journalists being assassinated.

"There is significant evidence of journalists being targeted to silence their work," she said.

This trend was brutally underscored when a leading Colombo newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickramatunga, was shot dead while driving to work last week. An extraordinary "editorial from the grave" blaming the Sri Lankan Government for his death has made Wickramatunga's assassination all the more controversial.

He was the 16th media worker slain in Sri Lanka over the past three years as war rages between the Government and the Tamil Tigers.

While Colombo mourned Wickramatunga, another cruel assault on freedom of speech was taking place in Nepal. On Sunday night a young journalist was hacked to death by 15 attackers in her apartment at Janakpur, a small town 240 kilometres south-east of the capital Kathmandu.

Uma Singh, in her 20s, was known for her reports on women's rights and politics. She was also a strident critic of the Hindu caste system and the tradition of dowry, where a bride's parents are forced to give cash, jewellery and expensive gifts to the groom at the time of wedding. Locals heard Singh's killers telling her: "This is for writing so much."

She was the fourth journalist killed in Nepal in two years.

In Afghanistan the number of independent media outlets has risen recently, but it is still a hazardous place for reporters, especially those who express views contrary to clerics. The South Asia Media Monitor 2008 records the case of a journalism student, Sayed Perwiz Kambaksh, 23, who was sentenced to death for "disseminating defamatory remarks about Islam" after he wrote an online article criticising local teaching about the rights of women. His sentence was commuted to 20 years.

India has a vibrant media featuring thousands of newspapers and more than 60 news channels. However, journalists are also frequently threatened.

K. K. Katyal, who heads the Indian chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association, said: "This includes physical violence as well as attacks on houses and offices."

The association blames "rogue elements" in political parties, religious groups and insurgency groups for much of this abuse.

 

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