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An Unclean Chit

A grim year for media freedom in India

In the last ten months, Shirin Dalvi has had practically no paid work. She has given one talk on All India Radio and had one article in Urdu, on madrasa reform, translated and published in the Economic and Political Weekly. Dalvi has been a journalist for 27 years, of which she spent five in editorial positions. She was the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Urdu newspaper Avadhnama, which, on 17 January this year, ran the cover image of an issue of Charlie Hebdo to accompany a story about the satirical French magazine. Just ten days earlier, many of Charlie Hebdo’s Paris staff had been murdered in a horrific attack on their offices by Muslim fundamentalists. The attackers were believed to be upset with the magazine’s controversial cartoons, which are often seen to mock Islam and violate its conventional prohibition on depicting the prophet Muhammad in images. A caricature of Muhammad was on the Charlie Hebdo cover that Avadhnama ran with their story.

The Paris magazine is still in business. The Mumbai edition of Avadhnama, shuttered after it printed the image, is history. In the last year, Dalvi has been sacked, hounded, charged with offending religious sentiments, and left near-impoverished. The Crime Investigation Department is currently conducting the official inquiry into multiple cases of religious offence lodged against her. She gets some translation work these days. In July, she told the Indian Express that she had made Rs 22,000 in the six months since she had been fired. The career she fought to build over decades has crumbled to nothing. “I just want to get back to work,” she told me. “I want to work in my field again.”

The bloodless violence done to Dalvi’s career inaugurated a grim year for media freedom in India, which hit a low point over the week it took for Jagendra Singh, an independent journalist from Shahjahanpur, to die in agony after he was set on fire in suspicious circumstances this June. In full view of television crews, slathered in the foamy ointment used to treat his horrific petrol burns, Singh claimed that a minister of the Uttar Pradesh government, against whom he had published a number of critical news items and views on Facebook, was responsible for his murder. In response, the Akhilesh Yadav government was quick to announce monetary compensation for Singh’s family, although it was staunch in its defence of the accused minister, Ram Murti Verma.

The story dropped out of the national pages after Singh’s autopsy report pronounced it likely that his burns were self-inflicted. Verma was cleared of suspicion by his party, and Singh’s family publicly declared that the journalist had set himself on fire. Local reporters have remained sceptical of these conclusions. BP Gautam, an independent journalist who covered the story in depth, told me, matter-of-fact, that the noise had probably quietened down due to “pressure” from the authorities.

Supriya Nair is an associate editor at The Caravan.

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